Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Heidegger's influence on Aquinas: "Someone just needs a hug"

I didn't know whether to call this post a Heidegger pushback or a Heidegger loveslap. It seems to me, from just reading the Letter on Humanism---very, very interesting, but perhaps for right now enough Heidegger for me---that Heidegger is too pessimistic about the history of metaphysics. Heidegger sees the modern condition as one of utter forgetfulness of Being. I do not claim that the most important revelations about Ek-sistence are not yet to come: but when they do, they will build off the enduring insights of the ancients into the transcendentals and the medieval transition from natural to sacred theology in Thomas Aquinas.

The act of existing and the fact of existence are central to Thomist thought: Being is superintelligible, the font and upwelling of all intelligibility, even though it can be the most difficult concept to grasp. Jacques Maritain, in speaking of Thomist thought, has described perceiving Being as an "achievement" (Distinguer pour unir ou les degr├ęs du savoir: "Distinguish to Unite, or, The Degrees of Knowledge"), a sort of supernatural grace in suddenly contemplating the presenceing of a blade of grass, in being awed by what is the most obvious and thus, at first, the most hidden. Thomas also notes that the beginning of a demonstration of Being can be had by realizing that there are immaterial substances as well as material ones, and thus something must underlie even substance. Without the realization of Being, the Philosophy of Nature would be the king of the disciplines: this is positivism, because it lacks access to the natural theology of the transcendentals.

Metaphysics is more than the mere esse ut primum cognitum, the mere vague grasp that something must be common to every thing. It is the view of Being as transcendental, esse inquantum esse, as not merely being the floor underlying other things like matter and color, but as constituting every thing that rests on the floor as well, whether that thing is a substance, genus, species or accident. Being shatters the heirarchy and categorical priorities of existence, and is thus the true transcendental. Being gifts itself into the green of grass as much as it does into the grass's matter or essence. The essence of grass is made up of Being. For this reason, existence precedes essence for Thomas, despite Sartre's claims. In fact, the term existentialism was first applied in the Middle Ages to Thomas, to distinguish from the later Scholastics who took Plato's Ideal Forms too literally.

On this note, Thomas incorporates the insights of both Neoplatonic transcendentalism and Aristotelian dualist metaphysics. For Aristotle, form (essence) is actuality and matter is potentiality; for Aquinas, form and matter are both potential, to be filled with the transcendental infinity of Being. Similarly, potentiality does not precede act in time, as it did for Aristotle. In Aquinas, ens, essence, draws its power and meaning from esse, existence, as everything must. Essence, in fact, like everything that is not Being, is a limitation on the explosiveness of Being. Thus, Aquinas does not dwell in forgetfulness of Being: Gilson remarks accurately that Heidegger's Sein and Seiende are mirrored by the full theory of Aquinas's esse and ens. Aquinas's metaphysics is truly an aletheiology, an un-forgetfulness.

With Thomas's treatment of the transcendentals, adding Platonic convertibility to the basically-sound Aristotelian metaphysics, he fully and completely grasps natural theology. But Heidegger wants something more: he needs something more. This is wonder. And the modern world finds it too easy, perhaps, to study Thomas without understanding his profound Christology. For Heidegger, the definition of man as a "rational animal" is too late: the basic fact of the Event, the Ereignis, has already been lost. Thomas understands this, and observes that man is defined as a rational animal only equivocally; reasoning for Thomas is in fact only a sort of "proper accident," the term itself being a seeming contradiction. Man's essence is not reasoning: the essence is what man is, and reasoning is simply what he does, what distinguishes him from chimpanzees and bananas. If another animal were found that could reason, it would not make that animal, necessarily, a man. For Aquinas, a man is the Image of God. There is some relation to rationality, here, but only secondarily. The Potter has made, not a cup, but an Image of the Potter, and the clay is the Potter Himself, though the Image is not the Potter---for the Image has Being, while the Potter is Being, as best as we can conceive. The proper response to this wonder of Creation is humility and thankfulness. We cannot be proud of being Images, for it is a gift, and even our existence to receive this gift is a gift.

The radical dependence of every thing on Being has huge consequences for Aquinas in each field of knowledge. His theory of truth is powerfully metaphysical, in contrast to the epistemological theories of truth popular these days. As Milbank and Pickstock note in Truth in Aquinas, we do not [[[Continue reading...]]] need to refer Truth to Being, for Truth is a mode of being. Truth is convertible with Being: Truth is equally close to all levels of the metaphysical heirarchy. Why would we need another name, if Truth is Being? Because we are finite creatures: we perceive beings as separate in their Beingness. Truth is a gift to us, as it relates beings to one another and to us through a harmony or analogy of the mind receiving into itself, and becoming, the full Being of the object, its existence and essence. And thus Truth is more than a mere reflection, more than just being "true to the facts." As Aquinas says, Truth is less properly in things than in mind, and our thoughts complete and bring to their full teleological existence God's creations. The tree of our mind's eye is just as True as the tree in creation---and thus Aquinas is a Realist---and in some sense Truer, since we can grasp and realize and perfect the tree's telos, its presenceing---and so Aquinas is some sort of hyperRealist. As Aquinas says in De Veritate, this gift of Truth is "salvific compensation," a boon to us in our divided and fallen state away from God.

This goes even farther: for Aquinas, Beauty may be the final, most perfect transcendental. (See Hunter's Analogy and Beauty: Thomistic Reflections on the Transcendentals, and Waddell's The Hermeneutics of Beauty: Re-reading Thomas Aquinas's De Veritate 1.1.) Truth is a harmony between different modes of being: and Beauty is harmony, proportion, and fittingness. Note that the word aesthetic is from the Greek aisthanesthai, "to perceive." Truth is a perceived harmony, and so every single judgment itself is an aesthetic act. We give glory, and fulfill our Being, by bearing witness to the Truth, and this is the ultimate act of participation in Beauty. This is the beginning of the answer Heidegger must be looking for: Heidegger just needs a hug.

I am trying to find time right now to review Caputo's Heidegger and Aquinas. The discussion there is far more technical and continental than I really feel comfortable with. Caputo approaches Aquinas from Heidegger, whereas I think in the opposite direction. Caputo at the end finds that Thomist thought only partially rises to Heidegger's challenge. I may have something to say about this during the summer. For now, here's a summary. Both Aquinas and, more so, Heidegger have, effectively, claimed that their metaphysics accuse all other theories of being oblivious to Being. Gilson makes this claim historically, noting that each epochal theory tries to encompass Being: the Platonists reduced Being to unity, the Aristotelians reduced Being to substance, from Avicenna to Hegel Being was reduced to essence, etc. Only St. Thomas, Gilson claims, took Being as Being, in all of its primodiality. However, the very distinction between us having Being, and God being Being---that seems to solve the problems of both our separation from God and yet our basic dignity as both gifts and recipieints of gifts---Heidegger attacks as once more sinking into forgetfulness. Heidegger accuses Thomas of reintroducing an ephocal theory of being by dividing between esse subsistens and ens participatum. But it does seem to me that, despite this division, Aquinas does grasp the Geschick, the sending forth of Being in to beings, and the Anwesen, the presence-ing, the overflowing of Being in the moment. The transcendental Being for Aquinas as not something remote and purely universal. It is the most super-present thing of all, and the most active, even as it is the most infinite. I think that Heidegger, unfortunately, has fallen prey to his own true criticism of the history of philosophy, and as Husserl asserts is in danger of becoming a small part of the problem: he is using language as techne. At least, that's the way it seems to me.

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