Monday, January 24, 2011

on De Ente, from Life of Pico

Saturated as mediaeval theology was with ideas derived from Plato and Aristotle, and but imperfectly understood, it was inevitable that when men attempted to philosophize about God, they should conceive Him—or -at any rate tend to conceive Him—rather as a universal principle, or archetypal source of ideas, than as a concrete personality. Hence nominalism, with its frank denial of the existence of universals, conceptualism with its reduction of them to figments of abstraction, seemed equally to involve atheism; even realism of the more moderate type, which, while asserting the objective existence of the universal, denied its existence ante remi.e., apart from the particular—was viewed with suspicion as tending to merge God in the cosmos; while realism of the high Platonic order, by its assertion of the existence of a world of pure universals—archetypes of the particulars revealed to sense—found favour in the eyes of men in whom the philosophic interest was always strictly subordinated to the theological.

In the treatise " De Ente et Uno" the question as between the transcendence and the immanence of God comes to the surface with remarkable abruptness. Is " the One," i.e. God, to be regarded as " Being " or as " above Being?" Aristotle is supposed to maintain the former position, Plato undoubtedly holds the latter. To the Platonic doctrine Pico gives in his unqualified adhesion, and attempts to constrain Aristotle to do so likewise. His Platonism I is of the most uncompromising type, the idealism of the Parmenides with the Parmenidean doubts and difficulties left out. Abstract terms such as " whiteness" or " humanity" signify, he asserts dogmatically, and apparently without a shadow of doubt as to the truth of the doctrine, real existences which are what they are in their own right and not by derivation from or participation in anything else, while their corresponding concretes denote existences of an inferior order which are what they are by virtue of their participation in the abstract or archetypal ideas. Upon this theory he proceeds deliberately to base his theology. As whiteness in itself is not white, but the archetypal cause of that particular appearance in objects, and in the same way heat in itself is not hot, but the cause of the particular sensation which we call heat; so God is not" Being" though, or rather because, He is the "fulness," i.e. the archetypal cause, of "Being." As thus the one primal fountain of "Being" He is properly described as "the One." "God is all things and most eminently and most perfectly all things; which cannot be, unless He so comprehends the perfections of all things in Himself as to exclude whatever imperfection is in them. Now, things are imperfect either (i) in virtue of some defect in themselves, whereby they fall short of the normal standard proper to them, or (2) in virtue of the very limitations which constitute them particular objects. It follows that God being perfect has in Him neither any defect nor any particularity, but is the abstract universal unity of all things in their perfection. It is, therefore, not correct to say that He comprehends all things in Himself; for in that case neither would He be perfectly simple in nature, nor would they be infinite which are in Him, but He would be an infinite unity composed of many things infinite, indeed, in number, but finite in respect of perfection; which to speak or think of God is profanity." In other words, in order to get a true idea of God we must abstract from all plurality, all particularity whatever, and then we have as the residue the notion of a most perfect, infinite, perfectly simple being. God may, then, be called Being itself, the One itself, the Good itself, the True itself; but it is better to describe Him as that which is "above Being, above truth, above unity, above goodness, since His Being is truth itself, unity itself, goodness itself," better still to say of Him that He is "intelligibly and ineffably above all that we can most perfectly say or conceive of Him," and with Dionysius the Areopagite to define him by negatives. And so he quotes with approval part of the closing sentence of the treatise " De Mystica Theologia" in which agnosticism seems to exhaust itself in the exuberant detail of its negations. "It" (i.e. the First Cause) "is neither truth, nor dominion, nor wisdom, nor the One, nor unity, nor Deity, nor goodness, nor spirit, as far as we can know; nor sonship nor fatherhood, nor aught else of things known to us or any other creature; neither is it aught of things that are not nor of things that are; nor is it known to any as it is itself nor knows them itself as they are; whose is neither speech, nor name, nor knowledge, nor darkness, nor light, nor error, nor truth, nor any affirmation or negation." And then, to give a colour of orthodoxy to his doctrine he quotes the authority of St. Augustine to the effect that "the wisdom of God is no more wisdom than justice, His justice no more justice than wisdom, His life no more life than cognition, His cognition no more cognition than life; for all these qualities are united in God not in the way of confusion or combination or by the interpenetration as it were of things in themselves distinct, but by way of a perfectly simple ineffable fontal unity ": a summary statement of some passages in the sixth book of the treatise "De Trinitate," which is of course misleading apart from theeontext in which they occur. [Such is Pico's theory of the Godhead—a theory which in fact reduces it to the mere abstraction of perfect simplicity and universality, a theory wholly irreconcilable with the Christian faithflwholly unfit to form the basis of religion J Nor was its author insensible, rather he would seem to have been only too painfully conscious of the barrenness of the results to which so much toil and trouble had brought him; for he has no sooner enunciated it than he turns, as if with a sigh, to Politian, and addresses him thus :—" But see, my Angelo, what madness possesses us. Love God while we are in the body we rather may than either define or know Him. By loving Him we more profit ourselves, have less trouble, please Him better. Yet had we rather ever seeking Him by the way of speculation never find Him than by loving Him possess that which without loving were in vain found "—words that since Pico's day must have found an echo in the heart of many a thinker weary with the vain effort to gain by philosophical methods a clear insight into the divine nature.

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