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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Being and Natural Law: Introduction

I HAD THE RECENT PLEASURE of attending, along with seminarians and other members and friends of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (S.O.L.T.), some lectures held at Our Lady of Corpus Christi by Dr. John F. X. Knasas on the metaphysical basis of the natural law theory of St. Thomas Aquinas, with special focus on St. Thomas's responsio in Question 94, art. 2 of the IaIIae of the Summa Theologiae. I want to devote the next several blog postings to my reflections on his lectures.*

Dome of Our Lady of Corpus Christi Chapel

Dr. Knasas is classified as an "existential Thomist" in the tradition of Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, and is epistemologically speaking an unabashed moderate realist. Dr. Knasas currently holds the Bishop Wendelin J. Nold Endowed Chair as Professor of Philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Knasas and earned his doctorate at the University of Toronto, under the direction of Fr. Joseph Owens, C.S.s.R. He is the author of a number of texts, including Jacques Maritain: The Man and His Metaphysics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), The Preface to Thomistic Metaphysics (Peter Lang Publishing, 1991), and Being and Some Twentieth Century Thomists (Fordham University Press, 2003). His most recent book which should be published shortly is Thomism and Tolerance (University of Scranton Press, 2010). The posts over the next week or so shall follow the series of five lectures given by Dr. Knasas.

Professor John F. X. Knasas

A quick overview of Dr. Knasas's lectures is as follows. Dr. Knasas first introduced the subject of ethics in philosophy, and the role and propriety of relying upon St. Thomas as a philosopher, and not as a theologian, as a starting off point for dicussing ethics from the vantage point of reason unaided by faith or revelation. Following that brief introduction, Dr. Knasas addressed the metaphysical background supporting the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, paying particular attention to St. Thomas's realist epistemology. St. Thomas's epistemology is what supports his understanding of obligation. With the epistemological foundation established, Dr. Knasas then explored the notion of intellection and the notions of univocal and analogical commonalities, of analogates, and of the analogon. Analogical reasoning is particularly critical in understanding the concept of being, the ratio entis, and the concept of Thomistic natural law which follows from this transcendental via its virtual twin brother transcendental, the good. From the concept of being it is but a short step to the notion of the concept of the good, the ratio boni, another transcendental which in fact is equivalent to being. Among all creatures or analogates of being and of good, man participates in the analogons of being and good in a particularly eminent or striking way. We are, in contradistinction to all other things or analogates of being, intellectors of being and willers of good, and it is this particular characteristic in man, and not some sort of abstract "rationality," that is the foundation or source of moral obligation in Dr. Knasas's view. I am an intellector of being and a willer of good, and so I detect within me some uniqueness relative to the creation about me, and that gives rise in me the sense of obligation as to the proper use or ordering of those created goods vis-à-vis me. Of all the animals, of all visible creation, I have a grasp, even if through a glass darkly, of the transcendentals of being and of good. I also recognize other men as being intellectors of being and willers of good, and, as a consequence, sense obligations--necessities in freedom--, moral in nature, with respect to my relations with my others of my kind. It is with this background that Dr. Knasas then tackled q. 94, art. 2 of the IaIIae of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas, part of what is popularly referred to as St. Thomas's Treatise on Law. That, in a nutshell, is a summary of the lectures.

We will now turn to the introductory lecture:

Ethics is a branch of philosophy, that branch that is concerned with man's practical life, man's acts or omissions in his doing, not in his speculative thinking. Not truth, but good is ethics' focus. In particular, ethics attempts to explore the basis of obligation, of felt moral necessity, or the sense of "oughtness" that strikes us and differentiates certain acts of ours from others. There are some acts that do not raise the issue of "oughtness," such as the act of kicking a table, or painting our house green instead of white. These are acts which has no moral "oughtness" to them. And yet the intentional kicking of the student sitting next to Dr. Knasas elicits from us a feeling of unseemliness, a sense that some rule or law or principle has been violated, a sense one "ought" not to have done that. Even if the kick is unintentional, it seems to elicit the requirement or "oughtness" of an apology. Kicking the table does not elicit this sort of phenomenon. It is this phenomenon, the sense of obligation or moral necessity--a necessity which is not deterministic, for it is a necessity that does not compel, but instead urges us or woos us to exercise our freedom in conformity with it, and condemns us or judges us if we fail to act in conformity with it--that is associated with certain of our actions or omissions that ethics seeks to explain. Since ethics is part of philosophy, like philosophy in general ethics seeks to explain this phenomenon, not by recourse to revelation or authority, but by the use of reason. The ethical project, then, would seem to be something that would be shared by all men, as reason crosses over cultures, religions, and stretches even over the expanse of history.

During the course of the philosophical history of man, many efforts to answer the source of obligation have been proposed: hedonism builds its answers on the notion of pleasure or avoidance of pain. Utilitarianism or consequentialism tries to find answers through it moral calculus which seeks to maximize some good or minimize some evil, however variously defined. Conventionalism puts the sense of obligation in social convention or agreement. The natural law places the obligation in the nature of things, in particular in the nature of man.

Like any human intellectual construct or model of reality, there are difficulties and problems associated with each theory, problems that Dr. Knasas called prima facie problems because the problems require further treatment. Presumbably some of these problems, at least for a theory that is in accord with reality, ought to be able to be able to be worked through. As one tries to answer the prima facie problems one begins to enter in the realm of the mystery of obligation's font, a mystery that is not an enigma, but rather mystery that allows reason to gain some insight, but never a full grasp, into its structure, insight that is gained by courting, as it were, this mystery. Wonder is the ticket of admission. Humility to something greater than ourselves is the how the ticket's purchased.

Dr. Knasas turned to St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance, specifically, his Summa Theologiae, generally regarded St. Thomas's crowning work. Naturally, one may ask why someone off on a philosophical venture should access a theologian's map. The theologian is, in a sense, parochial: "a theologian would seem to address not all human beings but only the theologian's fellow believers." (Though a universal religion such as Catholicism suffers from less parochialism than, say, the Falun Gong. But the point is well taken.) And ethics purports to go beyond confessional predeliction. Ethics, a branch of philosophy, purports to talk to mankind in man's universal language: reason. It would seem improper, then, to refer to a 13th century Dominican theologian to start a philosophical journey. So Dr. Knasas offered a brief apologia.

To criticize a modern philosopher's reference to St. Thomas as an improper turning to theology misunderstands St. Thomas and his historical and cultural milieu. St. Thomas rowed his intellectual boat in two great streams: philosophy and theology. It is true that he frequently dips his oar in their confluence. But St. Thomas indisputably recognizes that there are truths accessible to reason, and which are not dependent upon, or which are parallel to, those of revelation. And when St. Thomas addresses these natural truths, he is doing philosophy, and not doing theology. "Thomistic theology cannot be only theology; at certain times, it will also be philosophy."

What is in particular philosophical in St. Thomas is his metaphysics, and this includes his metaphysical basis for the sense of obligation. It is Dr. Knasas's thesis that St. Thomas Aquinas's "philosophical basis for the experience of obligation is an understanding of ourselves as intellectors and willers of being." Indeed, if human nature is defined as anything it is as "intellectors and willers of being," which is the same thing as saying intellectors and willers of the being as good. Natural law is therefore not predicated upon some sort of primitive biologism or physicalism (as it is often accused of doing); rather, it is based upon the transcendentals of being and of good, or, perhaps more precisely, upon the fact that it is in our nature to be intellectors and willers of that being and that good. Here, Dr. Knasas departs from the commonplace of the Enlightenment theorists of the natural law, who put the entirety of man's uniqueness, and who predicated the entirety of the moral law, upon rationality alone. Rationality does not do justice to the real source of moral obligation. To understand the real source of obligation, we must understand man as an "intellector and willer of being."

If metaphysics is the foundation of ethics, then we must go to metaphysics. This, of course, will take us away from ethics into metaphysics. Before we can step forward into the nave of ethics and the apse of obligation, we must step back into narthex of metaphysics, specifically epistemology--reality, and how (and if) we know it. In a manner countercultural, "Aquinas will approach ethics from what he knows in metaphysics."

And so, before we can tackle the issue of obligation, we must explore the notion of intellection and St. Thomas Aquinas's philosophical realism. That is the subject of our next blog posting.

*Not all of what is written here should be ascribed to Dr. Knasas. Much of what is here represents my own musings, musings triggered by his lecture. These postings also document my understanding of what Dr. Knasas's lectures were; it is not beyond the real of possibility that I may have misunderstood or misinterpreted him. If so, I beg his indulgence. Where I use quotations marks, I reference to Dr. Knasas's handouts.

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