"The Soul's Activity," Jan., 1860 (The soul's first act is to think and will. But to think what?)

The Soul’s Activity


One of the objections to Gioberti’s philosophical system is its novelty.  We answer by a distinction: it is new in form but old in substance.  It was not taught by the Pagan philosophers because it is based on the reality of creation, and creation was a mystery which the Pagan mind attempted in vain to solve.  Plato makes the nearest approach to it of any ancient sage, and had he lived in Christian times, the Abbate Gioberti’s work might have been forestalled by the Athenian.  The connection between theology and philosophy has been so frequently dwelt on the pages of the Review, as to make it sufficient for our purpose now simply to allude to it.  When a man’s theology is false the poison of error filters down to the lower substratum of philosophy, and when his philosophy is false he can escape heresy in theology only by inconsistency, by meekly sacrificing his logical principles on the alter of his faith.  Man’s final destiny, in the present order, is exclusively supernatural; there is no natural beatific, no natural damnatific vision for him.  Heaven with its supernatural rewards, or hell with its supernatural punishments, is to be his home forever.  God designs, in man’s case, that nature and grace, philosophy and theology, should be in constant union.  To sever that union is to sin.  Hence we need expect to find true philosophy only amongst those who retained the primitive supernatural revelation, and those whose privilege it is to have superadded to it the teachings of Jesus Christ.  The Synagogue and the Church are the guardians of philosophy as well as of religion.  And it is amongst the ablest champions of the Church that the Giobertian system has found its most able defenders.  St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventura, and Fenelon did not lay down, in so many words, that Ens creat existentias is the primum philosophicum; that the assertion of the synthetic judgment to the thinking subject, and its consequent apprehension by that subject, are the necessary conditions of all thought, but they teach what is tantamount to it.  It is not out intention to make quotations from their writings; we wish to construct an argument from reason, not from authority.  Those of our readers who desire to verify our assertion concerning the authors in question, can have their curiosity gratified by consulting St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, passim, St. Bonaventura’s Itinerarium mentis ad Deum, chap. 5, and the 1st part of Fenelon’s book de l’Existence de Dieu.

When the scholastic theologians of the middle ages systematized the teachings of the Church, molded them into one scientific whole, and arrayed them in the garb of Aristotelean phraseology, they were not anathematized as innovators.  Their doctrine was the doctrine of the Apostles, the doctrine of Christ, but their method was their own.  Methods will change and must change.  Truth is not to be kept as a fossil in a museum of antiques, but one and eternal as God himself; it is also as living and active as he, as in the modes of its manifestation to human intellects.  Scholasticism with its phantasmata, its intelligible species, its thousand quaint yet profound distinctions, has had its day, and has done its work, and done it well.  We should be badly off if the schoolmen had never lived or written.  Ill would it fair with us, if, whilst the army of falsehood, provided with all the weapons of modern intellectual warfare is drawn up against us, we still had to do the work that the scholastics have done for us, still to find the arms which fortunately they have manufactured for us.  We must go to the armory of the Middle Ages, of St. Thomas, St. Anselm, Alexander Hales, Dun Scotus, and St. Bonaventura, and if we find their suits of mail too massive for our stature, their spears and swords too ponderous for our grasp, it is proof that there were giants in those days and that we are pigmies.  We must needs sit down in all humility and shorten the spear, and beat the sword thinner, and tailor the coat of mail as best we can.  The substance will remain the same; the spear and the sword will be of the same steel that, in many a well-fought tilt of scholastic times, pierced through the brain of heresy and pinned it quivering to the earth.

A new formula is no proof of a new doctrine, any more than a new coat is a proof of a new man.  The theory taught by Gioberti is his simply because he has formulized it.  Scrutinize it fairly, without passion, without prejudice; examine it all the more closely because of Gioberti’s theological and political errors; for error in one department of truth tends, as we have seen, to propagate itself in all others, and yet we think the theory will stand the test and be found the only golden mean between subjectivism and objectivism, between pantheism and nihilism. 

Every mind is stamped with individuality; every mind attaches different shades of meaning even to the commonest words.  No two, out of a hundred disciples of the same master, will understand his doctrine in precisely the same way.  The impress will be more or less different in all; the expression of the original doctrine will vary in proportion.  A writer in the September number of the Rambler, in an article on Rosmini and Gioberti, thus explains his view of the Giobertian formula, Ens creat existentias.  “When Gioberti asserts that the human mind is a spectator of the creative act, he does not mean that it sees the mysterious commencements of existences out of nothing.  His copula creat is nothing more than a conception of the correlation of Absolute and Contingent, and which is given not in separate intuition, but in the intuition of the Absolute and Contingent themselves, in which such correlation is implied, as may be discovered by analysis.  We shall see presently that there is nothing new in this doctrine.  In the mean time, let me satisfy an objection which will readily occur to the thoughtful reader.  “it is true,” some will urge, “that in the actual state of our knowledge, refined as it is by reflex processes, the notion of the Contingent involves the notion of the Absolute as cause; and, if Gioberti’s copula means nothing more than the correlation of these terms, we cannot hesitate in accepting it.  But why regard it as intuitive?  Why not attribute it to the refinements of the reflective process itself?  Because it is a law which has almost an axiomatic evidence, when properly understood, that nothing is given in reflection which is not given substantially in intuition; or, in other words, reflection, as its name implies, is not a faculty presentative but only re-presentative of truth, reflecting what has been substantially posited by the intuition…The human mind cannot create, and the representative faculty compounds or analyzes the simple materials which come by the presentative faculty.”

This, as we understand it, is the doctrine accepted and defended in the pages of the Review.  The writer in the Rambler touches, however, on one point which has not, perhaps, been brought as prominently forward as it deserves, against the opponents of Gioberti.  They will persist in scaring at names, in shying off from the formula, Ens creat existentias, as if it were a deep, dark, magical phrase, a perfect bugbear of logical heresy.  In reality, it is only another expression of the principle of causation – whatever exists must have a cause.

No philosopher worthy of the name, will refuse to grant us that the mind is furnished a priori with the principle of causation; that it is one of the necessary conditions of thought.  The phenomena of sense contain only the relations of sequence, as Hume has conclusively shown.  Are we at liberty to reason thus: hoc post hoc; ero propter hoc?  No: then the principle of causation is not derived from an analysis of the object of sense, it is not empirical.  The mind gets it elsewhere, and by it, as its rule, judges of the phenomena of the external world.  The principle of causation is a synthetic judgment, a judgment by which the mind views two things as connected by the relation of origin, one producing and the other produced.  The principle of causation is the major of the syllogism in the physical argument which makes evident to the reflective faculty the fact that God is.  The ontological, moral, and physical arguments of natural theology have the same metaphysical basis, the fact that the mind intuitively possesses the principle of causation, and in it and by it, God and creatures and the relation between them.  If, by the application of this principle, we can readily show, that the existence of the world presupposes that God is, then we must admit that it embraces every possible mode in which a cause can be connected with its effect, even that of creation, or production from nothing; otherwise, the three arguments are worth nothing, and we must say, either that there is no God, or that he is self-evident to the reflective faculty.  Ens creat existentias is only another mode of enunciating the formula – whatever exists must have a cause.

Activity enters more or less into the essence of every creature, because every creature is the effect of a cause who is one, necessary, eternal act.  There can be no life, no existence without action.  Spirits act by willing and knowing, the souls of brutes by mere feeling, matter by attraction and repulsion.  No particle of matter is exempt from the law of gravitation; therefore, every particle of matter acts. Every substance is a vis activa; but substance, as such, is an abstraction; in the concrete order it must exist as a determinate substance with determinate modes.  To separate modes from substance, or substance from modes, is to take both out of the order of reality, to make them mere ens rationis.   Even God is, on one sense, modified; he has what metaphysicians call analogical and relative modes.  The modification of substance is a concreting, so to speak, of the abstract vis activa.  Every existing substance s not only an active force, but that force in exercise.  Action implies two, an actor and an acted on; the action of spirit implies a thinker and a thing thought, a willer and a thing willed.  Matter acts by attracting and repelling other matter, so that action is a relation of cause and effect between two, and thus the universe, in the action of its various parts, is a representation of God’s creative act.  To exist and to act are the same; then every existence acts at the moment of its creation, and acts conformably to its nature.  The soul is a soul because it thinks and wills, and hence it thought and willed in the very act of its creation.  But what did it think and will?  One of three: itself, or God, or both so united as to be the inseparable objects of thought and volition.

To say that the soul thought and willed itself, is to make it self-active and self-existent.  Its life is its action, and to suppose that it can be, by its own innate power, subject and object, of its own action, is to make it the adequate principle of its own life; that is, to deify it.  God only is, and can be, an object of activity unto himself.   The Eternal Father, as the principle of origin for the other Divine Persons, knowing himself, generates in the same numerically Divine Nature, the Eternal Word; and the mutual will or love of the Father and the Son gives origin, by procession, to the Holy Ghost.

Is God the adequate object on which the soul acts at the moment of its creation?  In the sense that it knows Him without knowing itself, we answer in the negative.  If the primary intuition is simply God as God, as the Absolute, or, what Rothenflue calls, to esse simpliciter, without including the contingent and the relation of causation between the Absolute and Contingent, then the subject thinking is identified with God, the object thought, and we fall into Pantheism.  Reflection can develop nothing from intuition but what is in it.  If God only is intuitively apprehended, he only can be thought, in the order of reflection.  Creation disappears, or becomes at best a pantheistic emanation, and we must say, with Schelling, that the foundation of philosophy is the absolute indifference of all differences, the identification of the subject and the object.

Nothing remains but to admit that the soul has, by one and the same act, an intuition of God and of itself; that God and self-consciousness are respectively the objective and subjective termini of the act which is the very life of the soul.  God creates a spiritual activity, a soul or an angel.  The created spirit instantly acts on its creator, or it is annihilated.  It cannot, we have seen, be the object of its own activity, neither can another creature, independently and of itself, be its object.  Put a simple case: God could, had he so chosen, have created but one spirit.  Now, does the number of individuals in a species change the essence of that species?  Is an angel or a soul more or less of an angel or a soul by having myriads of fellow-creatures, or by having none?  One spirit is essentially the same as another.  Suppose, then, but one created spirit in the world, what, but God, could be the object of its activity?  Only he can be the principle of action who is the principle of life.  If to act, by thinking and willing, is a spirit’s essence, then the object must be presented to at the moment of creation, for to suppose it destitute of an object, and to go out of itself in search of one, is to suppose it to act and not to act; to exist and not to exist.  The unknown is for a spirit the same as the non-existing.  The unknown object must disclose itself to the subject, and hence must be greater than it.  The other hypothesis, that the union between the subject and object is effected by the subject, endows the mind with creative powers, and makes it God.

The Creator presents himself, in the act of creation, to the created spirit as the object of its activity.  He flashes himself upon it and the soul by the splendor of the divine light,- knows him, and thereby knows itself.  Consciousness is the rebound of the soul on itself from its bound to God.  The Creator and the creature are presented together in intuition, joined by the nexus of causality.  The soul, by the light of God, sees that he is absolute and itself contingent; he infinite, and itself finite; and that the finite and the infinite, the contingent and the absolute, cannot coexist but as effect and cause.  Here, then, we have the principle of causation, or Ens creat existentias.  The same divine act that created the soul preserves it; it depends as much on God now as it did when, at his bidding, it sprang from nothing; its essence now is what it was then.  If the intuition of the creative act was its life then, so is it now.  Whence it follows that the order of thought represents the order of reality; and to those who sneer at the assertion we would say: please remember that the order of reality, taking creation as a fact, means the coexistence of Creator and creature; the one bound to the other by the creative act, or causal nexus.  We have shown that the intuition of this coexistence and nexus constitutes the very essence of the soul, and therefore we are warranted in concluding that the order of thought represents the order of reality.

Intuition presents the absolute and contingent together; the soul develops, in the order of reflection, the contingent element first.  The child notices its parents and its toys before the word God has for it any meaning; but to reason that therefore intuitively it knows the contingent before the absolute, would be as logical as to infer thence that the contingent existed before the absolute.

God’s modes of operation in the two orders of nature and of grace are analogous.  The act of love by which he destines the soul to the enjoyment of the beatific vision raises the soul to the supernatural order, and enables it to react on its loving Creator, and love him in turn as its first beginning and last end.  The union of love between God and the soul constitutes the state of grace, a state which is not a mere passivity but an activity.  The soul it not changed in essence by being elevated to the higher sphere of the supernatural, and if to act is its essence in one order, so it must be in the other.  An act may be habitual as well as the reception of an act, and in this sense the soul’s supernatural love of God habits or abides by constant permanent exercise.  The instant that act ceases, the instant the supernatural communication of love between God and the soul is interrupted, the soul dies, it has committed mortal or deadly sin; its supernaturalness is, if we may be allowed the expression, annihilated.  Habitual grace is, in the supernatural order, what intuition is in the natural.  Both are acts, in the sense explained, each essential to the soul in its own order, and the cessation of either is the soul’s death in that order.  God, as the object of the soul’s knowledge and volition is, in both orders, the principle of life. 

Genius in the natural order is akin to sanctity in the supernatural.  The soul of the poet and the soul of the saint are closer to God than the souls of other men.  Their mutual action, whether of natural intuition, or of supernatural love, is more intense, the play of the electric fire between them is more vivid, because the distance to be traversed is less, and the tendency is to diminish that distance more and more.  When man’s intellect and will in the two orders are merged in God’s and yet distinct, when the creature has sunk down into the bosom of his Creator and yet remains a creature, then has heaven dawned upon the soul. W.J.B.