Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Duns Scotus, Freedom's Order, and Synchronic Contingency

BEFORE DELVING INTO THE MORAL THOUGHT of Duns Scotus, we ought to spend some time familiarizing ourselves with his metaphysical doctrine. Two areas and their interplay stand out for special mention.

First, we need to become familiar with Scotus's particular notion of divine freedom, in which freedom itself has its own order. It is this concept of order-in-freedom itself which makes Scotus neither an essentialist or a voluntarist, but someone who thinks and walks outside these categories. Second, we need to look at Scotus's handling of the problem of the contingency of creation on God's will and his notion of what Modern Scotist scholars have called "synchronic contingency." Finally, we need to see how these two interplay: how freedom's order and synchronic contingency operate together to give us reality.

Scotus walks a tightrope, as it were, between a robust Aristotelian essentialism (where all things have natures, and God himself is in a way constrained by the requirements of the essences of those nature in his creation of them or in his ordering them), on the one hand, and a radical Ockhamistic nominalism, where there are no such thing as essences or natures, and all creation, and therefore the law governing that creation, is based upon the arbitrary will of God: voluntarism.

Duns Scotus

Avoiding these two extremes or antipodes, Scotus sought to reconcile God's radical freedom without falling into the anarchy that follows if everything is considered a matter of arbitrary divine will. He also sought to give a nod in the direction of essences or natures of things--which supposes an ordered or reasoned will--without constraining the freedom of God. Scotus's metaphysical thinking on this issue has some importance in morality because if there is no such thing as an essence or nature (i.e., if we adopt a philosophical nominalism, where "man" is not an essence, but just a name (nomine), and the only thing that exists is not "man," but only each individual man), then there no reason in nature from which a universal law can be built. Similarly, if law is based, not upon nature or reason, but upon arbitrary will, then it follows that there is no such reality as good or evil, except as God's will commands. Good and evil, then, and the natural law which proscribes one to do good and avoid evil, likewise, are the result of a command, a fiat, the will of the sovereign. Morality becomes pure positivism--right and wrong are posited by the sovereign God. This is the opposite end of the Euthyphro dilemma.* But it is wrong to put Scotus in either the essentialist or nominalist camp, because his answer is almost sui generis. Scotus is more subtle.

[Scotus]is no standard essentialist, nor is he a familiar nominalist, for the reason that he has not put freedom and reason in fundamental ontological opposition to one another. The order or the reason of nature and action, of cosmology and morality, unfold within the architectonic form of freedom.

Wolter, x.* What Frank in his preface to Wolter's anthology means by the "architectonic form of freedom" is that God's freedom, its liberality, has an order of its own, so that God's freedom, when it freely and generously acts, is not arbitrary, but its exercise comes with its own order, its own rules. God, says Scotus, is debitor ex liberalitate sua, a debtor to his own liberality. Ord. IV, dist. 46. God's will, therefore, is most ordered even in its freedom: it is ordinatissme volens, a most ordered will. Ord.III, suppl., dist.32. Pascal noted that the heart has reasons of its own. In a similar way, in Scotus's view, freedom has reason of its own, even God's freedom. This reason's freedom or freedom's reason is what Walter calls Scotus's "architectonic form of freedom."

With respect to the important concept of "synchronic contingency," we find that Scotus narrowly seems to tread on the boundary of the law of non-contradiction: that something cannot both be and not be simultaneously. Something, say A, logically and really cannot be non-A. In an effort to explain the radical contingency of creation upon God's will, however, Scotus avers that it is both logically and really possible that the opposite of a contingent fact exist even at the time when that contingent fact exists. It is logically and really possible at the time that A, and that non-A be. This concept, of course, gives rise to a striking metaphysics:
The resultant ontology [from the notion of synchronic contingency] is a remarkable achievement, for it means that any finite created entity subsists over against the simultaneous and real possibility that it could be otherwise.
Woltern, xi. Under this sort of ontology, there is of course a certain trepidation, tenuousness, a thin-ice feel to contingent being. It is as if the Damocles sword of non-being always hovers above a contingent, created being. There is always the logical and real void of non-being in view. In Scotus's view, being walks on very thin ice. Contingent being is almost a will-o'-the-wisp. An Aristotelian metaphysics will see natures and essences as having a certain lastingness, a certain thickness, a certain purchase in which one can be confident. Things hold with Aristotle: once one has a purchase or hold on being, one can be confident that it is: it is a thick rope and firm anchor upon which being is belayed. With Scotus one is afraid being may slip into non-being, since being hangs on such thin thread and one's anchors are dangerously set. Being climbs with a little more nervousness. True, the Scotist concept of being has more to rely on that the Ockhamist. Continuing our metaphor, the Ockhamist concept of being is free soloing, and it has no ties whatsoever to safety. With Ockham, being climbs rashly, impetuously, cavalierly. One slip, one careless move and being crashes into non-being: there are no Aristotelian essences or natures, no Scotist order-in-freedom that will save Ockham's being from disappearing into non-being's chasm.

The Scotist notion of synchronic contingency affects one's thinking in morals. An Aristotelian will find something solid in nature, a ratio ordinis in nature: nature has a written, reliable order, one founded ultimately in the order that is in God and which God respects. There is the glue of reason in addition to will. The Aristotelian will find the "glue of the universe" to be in essences, in the natures of these contingent beings which participate in Being through a combination of reason and will. The Scotist, however, finds the "glue of the universe" to be in freedom, in the "architectonic order" of freedom, which presents a unique combination. The Ockhamist finds no glue at all in the universe except the naked will of God, and that will is radically free, free even of the thin order of freedom with which Scotus dressed the otherwise nude and immodest and ungovernable arbitrary will of God.

*The preface to Wolter's work (designated here by small Roman numbers) is William A. Frank of the University of Dallas.
**Briefly discussed in Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Voluntarism and Law.

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