Avicenna and Michael Bolin

Listening to Peter Adamson’s brilliant podcasts on Islamic philosophy, it struck me that al-Farabi and Avicenna had a theory about the the genesis of substantial form similar to that proposed recently by Michael Bolin. According to al-Farabi, the parents of an animal (say) merely dispose the matter, which is then informed by the lowest created intellegence (angel),  whom he famously identifies with the agent intellect, and which would later come to be called the dator formarum, the giver of forms. Avicenna develops him further and argues that spontaneous generation of a human being is possible in principle, since if the elements happened to be mixed in the right way, the dator formarum would infuse the form. I think this is basically the same as Bolin’s idea that the artificial construction of a living being is (in principle) possible. Bolin, however, thinks that the form is immediately given by the highest universal cause (God), rather than by a created universal cause. At first glance, al-Farabi’s idea that it is done by a created universal cause seems much more probable—especially in the light of De Koninck’s work on universal causality in The Cosmos— but I would like to look at al-Farabi’s and Avicenna’s arguments in detail.

Jane Austen on Prayer with Sensible Consolations

The title of this post is slightly disingenuous; Jane Austen doesn’t actually write the stage of prayer in which God consoles the soul with “sweet feelings,” but this passage of Sense and Sensibility seems to me a excellent likeness of what seems to be meant by such expressions:

Edward was now fixed at the cottage at least for a week;—for whatever other claims might be made on him, it was impossible that less than a week should be given up to the enjoyment of Elinor’s company, or suffice to say half that was to be said of the past, the present, and the future;—for though a very few hours spent in the hard labor of incessant talking will despatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different. Between THEM no subject is finished, no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over.

It is recounted of Msgr. Ronald Knox that immediately after his conversion he was receiving many sensible consolations, and that sometimes he would run on his way to Church in his impatience to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

Romano Guardini on Teleology in Nature


I have just discovered that the the Catholic Academy of Bavaria has a searchable concordance of Romano Guardini’s works online. It’s one of those things that I have always wished existed; how splendid to find that it actually exists. The database contains not only the works published during his lifetime, but also many of the lecture notes posthumously published in recent decades. I recently read his lectures on Dante–they are amazingly good. Someone ought to translate them into English. Here is a passage on the arbitrariness of an a-teleological view of nature:

The world is not a mere mass of reality causally ordered, and indifferent from an ethical point of view. That is how modernity sees it. And we would do well to realize clearly that this way of looking at things is not at all the result of science, but rather an a-priori. Modern man sees the world thus not because the world is thus, but rather because that is the way he wants to see it, and thus his view is the result of a selection. Max Weber’s famous definition according to which science must remain value-free–pure ascertainment of fact and analysis of reality– is a postulate, an expression of a certain attitude towards reality, not the result of an authentic encounter with the real. One of the points on which our future hinges is this: whether or not we recognize that the good is not some humanly imposed valuation of things, but rather that condition of the fulfillment of life which is given in being itself.

[Die Welt ist nicht eine vom ethischen Gesichtspunkt aus indifferente Wirklichkeitsmasse, die rein kausal geordnet ist. So sieht sie die Neuzeit, und wir tun gut, uns klarzumachen, daß diese Sehweise durchaus nicht Ergebnis von Wissenschaft, sondern ein Apriori ist. Der neuzeitliche Mensch sieht die Welt nicht so, weil sie so wäre, sondern weil er sie so sehen will, und nach dieser Voraussetzung eine Auswahl vollzieht. Die berühmte Definition Max Webers, wonach Wissenschaft wertfrei bleiben müsse, reine Wirklichkeitserfassung und Wirklichkeitsanalyse, ist Postulat, Ausdruck von Gesinnung, nicht Ergebnis echter Wirklichkeitsbegegnung. Und es ist einer der Punkte, an denen sich unsere Zukunft entscheidet, ob wir wieder erkennen, daß das Gute keine vom Menschen her aufgesetzte Charakterisierung des Daseins ist, sondern im Sein selbst gegebene Voraussetzung der Lebenserfüllung bildet]

Angelic Governance and Human Dignity

As today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels, and St. Thomas Aquinas is called the “Angelic Doctor” partly because of his teaching on the angels, the reader will excuse a dense neo-scholastic reflection on the Gospel of the Feast.


See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)

The greatest good realized in creation, that which the Creator primarily intends in creating, is the good of the tranquility of order, the beautiful harmony that unites all creatures. This is the primary intrinsic good of creation, and the most perfect image of the God Himself, the separate and transcendent good of all things. The goodness of each individual consists in in own participation in being, its own reflection of an “aspect” of the divine Glory, but consists even more in the contribution that it thereby makes to the order of the whole.

Now the order of the whole of creation consists in two things: distinction and governance. In the distinction between different kinds of being and different levels of perfection, and in the governance of lower things by higher—the ordering of the less noble by the participated providence and power of the more noble. By governance the higher creatures help the lower contribute to the harmony of the whole, and finally “return” to the separate good of all things.

The is a great difference in the degree of participation in cosmic order between irrational creatures on the one hand, and rational and intellectual creatures on the other. Irrational creatures, since they lack true interiority cannot attain to the order of whole by knowledge or love, thus their participation in ballet of creation is extrinsic, imperfect—that is, the good of the universal order is a good to which they contribute in a small way, but it is not good for them, they cannot appreciate it. There participation is strictly speaking good for rational creatures, since only rational creatures can understand and enjoy their participation. The principle parts of the universe, the things of which the universe primarily consists, are thus the rational and intelligent creatures. They are the creatures that the universal good is for, in the sense that they enjoy it (Though in a more proper sense they are for it, as the universal good is more good than any particular good).

Since universe consists primarily of intelligent creatures, in the sense that they are its principle parts, and since intelligence is found most properly in purely spiritual creatures, St. Thomas argues that it is fitting that the “intelligences” (angels) exceed all corporeal creatures not only in the intensity of their being but also in their variety and number. As Lawrence Dewan puts it:

Thomas thinks there are good reasons [even apart from Revelation] to propose [the] existence [of angels], and their existence in number and variety such as to surpass incomparably any number of corporeal beings. The created universe, as St. Thomas conceives it, is overwhelmingly spiritual as to its ontological status, an assembly of spiritual substances or persons. ‘The universe’ is primarily a group of persons.” (Wisdom, Law, and Virtue: Esays in Thomistic Ethics, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 273)

However wonderful the numerical superiority of spiritual things over corporeal, far more important, and better known, is their intensive superiority to corporeal creation. Charle De Koninck has a wonderful summary of this in the second part of Ego Sapientia, which is concerned with the lowliness of Our Lady in the order of nature. He writes:

At the peak of creation, seen from the purely natural point of view, one finds the angels, pure spirits, beings very perfect according to substance and operation. Their essence being simple, each one of them constitutes in himself a complete and individual species subsisting outside of every naturally common genus. Each exhausts a degree of being. Radically hierarchised, each angel occupies an absolutely determined place in this hierarchy. Even the most inferior pure spirit constitutes in himself a universe incomparably more perfect than the cosmos and humanity together.

De Koninck proves this by considering how pure spirits are naturally superior to human beings, the most perfect corporeal thing. While man is composed of matter and form, of potency and act, and thus has the principle of his own passing away with himself, the angels are entirely necessary—the do not contain in themselves any principle of non-being. This is why in the world of men, unlike in the angelic world, so much is a matter of chance:

We are living at the border of the universe in which we are diffused, both as regards substance according to quantity, and duration according to time. Our days and places are uncertain. All here below is variable and precarious, and it is only by great effort that we sometimes succeed in impressing a momentary direction upon things. It is only by a habituation that blinds us and by a kind of animal resignation that we have become unconscious of the immense confusion in which we live, where violence alone seems capable of awakening us. Our substance is truly at the border of being.

The contrast is even starker if one looks at the act which is most defining of intelligent beings: knowledge. The angelic mind is in act from the very start of its being, a ray light as it where that takes in all things, that comprehends all creation with very few and powerful ideas. But the human mind begins in darkness, a purely potential intellect, which only begins to find some sparks of light through abstraction from exgternal, corporeal things: “The need of shadows of the sensible world originates in the weakness of our intelligence. By nature our rational life is the least perfect intellectual life conceivable.” (Ego Sapientia, ch. XIX)

Nevertheless, despite all this imperfection, human life, is an intellectual life, and as such it is able to attain to the good of God’s manifestation of Himself in the order of His creation, and (through grace) beyond that to the vision of God Himself. And this is what gives us our dignity.

This dignity is manifested by the fact that each human person has their own guardian angel—a pure spirit, who sees the beatific vision of God, and who is yet concerned with governing an individual man. We are part of the corporeal world of things, that comes to be and passes away, and yet we transcend it. God’s providence is chiefly concerned with things that endure forever, and only secondarily with passing things. Thus St. Thomas teaches that the angels concerned with governing the corporeal world are not set over individual things (destined to pass away), but only with the species of things which perdure. But individual human persons are not destined to pass away, and thus each one has a guardian angel, a governing intelligence. Children manifest most clearly the human condition of potentiality, ignorance, and weakness, and yet their angels in heaven always behold the face of the Father, and the task of those angels is to lead the children themselves to that vision, and in that destiny lies their dignity.

An Education in Desire

Titian Introduction   - 38

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (detail)

The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote, Continue reading

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Walks through a Slum


The following passage was written by St Rafael Arnaiz Barón in 1934 when he had been forced to leave his monastery for the first time. Original: Apología del trapense, in: Obras Completas 267-269. Translated with the help of the German. When I first read this passage I thought of the distributist blogger Daniel Nochols, and especially of his would-be revolutionary commentator Owen White. I thought of it again when Pope Francis was elected, with his great emphasis on the question of poverty– from which we have much to learn.

When I left the church it was night. I did not direct my steps to the city center, but headed for the outlying neighborhoods … There one sees the usual: material and moral poverty… The dirty, black houses, occasionally gave a view of their badly lit interiors. The smell of dust and moisture, disheveled women screaming at the children, playing in the brook… Dirty, poorly lit streets,. The shops are sell nothing but the bare necessities … bread and sandals. Occasionally, a tavern which emits a smell of tobacco, wine and cheap food. All this under an overcast sky without stars…
These are the people, the poor people. Hunger is a commonplace, and the inhabitants of the city center, do not come here, lest they be disturbed by this misery. In the center there are luxury shops, the houses have a doorman and elevator, no neon signs in the theaters, and bright, clean cars glide across asphalt without without splattering themselves with mud or crashing into children playing in the brook.
And yet both the poor and the rich are children of God, all have the same miseries and the same sins… But one day, when God judges, how surprised we’ll be! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, and consider the poor a nuisance, that is unforgivable.
When those above forget God, what wonder that those below rebel?… Do not go to the poor to preach patience and resignation, but go rather to the rich and tell them that if they are not just and do not give of their possessions the wrath of God will fall upon them.
As I walked through these neighborhoods, I was overcome with indignation and shame. The God is banished from society, the more misery spreads. And if in a town which is called Christian creatures hate each other because of class interest, and are separated into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both?… If the poor are deprived of the idea of ​​God, they have nothing left. Their despair is justifiable, their hatred of the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical.  And if the rich find the idea of God bothersome, if they  ignore the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus … then they have no reason to complain. And if their selfishness prevents them from approaching the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor intend to seize their possessions by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian does not feel pain in the soul to see it thus? … When I think that all social conflicts, all differences could disappear if we payed a little attention to the God who was so abandoned in the church I had just visited… When I think of the tragedy presented by human life, and that all this hatred and jealousy, selfishness and falsehood could disappear if we looked to God… When I see how easy it would be for men to find the key to happiness, but that in there blindness or madness they do not want to see… then I can only exclaim: Lord … Lord, look on your suffering people… The people are not bad, Lord… but if you abandon them, who will, Lord, survive? … What can we do ourselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing … If you averted your eyes from the world for even a moment, the whole  world would sink back into chaos… Forgive us, Lord.

The Body as Deep Mud, a Donkey, and the Hinge of Salvation

nativity copy

I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2

When Christ came into the world, he said, […] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5

Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII

For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5

The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3

The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Among the Vegetables; or the Trappist as a Conquistador

rafael arnaiz baron

I have been reading a German translation of the writings of the 20th century Spanish Trappist, St Rafael Arnáiz Barón. There is no English translation of his writings, but here is a very rough translation of one wonderful passage.  (Original: Hno. Rafael Arnaiz Barón, tomado de su “Obras completas”, Mi cuaderno – San Isidro, 12 de diciembre de 1936, Sábado, 25 años.)

The Antics of the Turnips

Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the  “laboratorium.”

There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.

It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.

The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait. Continue reading

The Only Thing Worth Writing About

Pale King Cover

This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing. Continue reading

Saint Martin and the Birds of Appetite


Sulpicius Severus recounts an odd story about S. Martin of Tours, whose Feast we celebrate today. It was on last journey before his death, he and his disciples past by a river where a number of birds were gobbling up fish in a feeding-frenzy. S. Martin was not amused:

This [exclaimed the saint] is a picture of how the demons act: they lie in wait for the unwary and capture them before they know it: they devour their victims when taken, and they can never be satisfied with what they have devoured.

He then proceeded to command the poor birds to fly off to “dry and desert regions.” The birds obediently flew off, “to no small wonder of many.”

What had the poor birds done to be sent off to the desert? They were merely following their instincts. Every living thing lives only by devouring other living things, or in, the case of plants, at least by depriving other living things of the chance to live on this bit of earth. Continue reading