‘For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity … First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father. Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.’ …
The writer cannot even be conscious of his Idea except by the working of the Energy which formulates it to himself. That being so, how can we know that the Idea itself has any real existence apart from the Energy? Very strangely: by the fact that the Energy itself is conscious of referring all its acts to an existing and complete whole. In theological terms, the Son does the will of the Father. Quite simply, every choice of an episode, or a phrase, or a word is made to conform to the pattern of the entire book, which is revealed by that choice as already existing. This truth, which is difficult to convey in explanation, is quite clear and obvious in experience. It manifests itself plainly enough when the writer says or thinks: ‘That is, or is not, the right phrase’—meaning that it is a phrase which does or does not correspond to the reality of the Idea.
—Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker1
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Benozzo Gozzoli, The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, 1471
The Thomistic approach to knowledge has, as one of its key axioms, Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu: ‘Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.’ This is part of the reason that Thomists are so confident in their rationalism; they consider their philosophy to be based in an appeal to the universal testimony of everyone’s eyes and ears and brains, and to be constructed by rational steps that practically anyone can understand and accept. But I believe there is a fatal flaw in this epistemology, one that can hamstring not only apologetics but thought as such. This flaw isn’t unique to Thomists—it’s a favorite flaw of modern philosophers from Descartes forward—but it needs correcting wherever it occurs.
The problem is this. All data gathered by the senses is, by definition, sense data: colors, tastes, sounds, textures, temperatures, and so on. The theory of knowledge set forth by Aristotle and championed by St Thomas and his successors avers that, after gathering such data (over a period of years at the beginning of our lives, and more easily later), the intellect abstracts and identifies the essences of things. For example, we see certain arrangements of colors and shapes, and perhaps feel certain textures and smell certain scents, and we’re told by our parents, ‘This is a tree.’ Then we perceive different arrangements of colors, shapes, textures, and scents, and those are trees too; and bit by bit we assemble a general idea of Tree as distinct from the individual trees that exemplify it.
The problem (as Aristotle and St Thomas alike should have seen2) is that you can’t validly move from a particular statement to a universal statement, ever. You can’t truthfully say ‘This X is Y, therefore all X are Y.’ Logically (and logic is one of the governing principles of the mind, as St Thomas insisted), you can’t abstract Tree from trees. And no matter how much sense data you gather, you cannot perceive Tree with any of your senses—you can only perceive trees. On these premises, you can’t know the natures of things, because it can’t ever be in your senses. At most, you can make educated guesses. Which is fine if that’s all you want to do, but if you want to reason out how things ought to be on the basis of what things they are, then that theory of knowledge decisively prevents you from ever doing so. In other words, if you want to practice Natural Law Theory, you have to start by rejecting Thomist epistemology.
This doesn’t bother me, because I am not attached to Thomist epistemology. I’ve preferred something more like Neo-Platonism since I was a child. If the human mind is going to recognize essences and not just appearances, it has to do so by some kind of intuition—recognition, if you will. The intellect must be lit from within as well as from without. There must be something in the human mind that is ready in advance for Tree, if trees are to prepare its way; the senses can, by all means, be the prophets and scribes of Tree, but they cannot be its only means of entry into the mind; the mind must conceive Tree apart from their touch, virginally.
This virginity is an affront to those men who wish all knowledge to enter the mind through the senses, whether they are scientists or theologians. The lust of objectivity—its own kind of objectification—is all but insatiable; less, I think, because of the natural human love of truth, than because we want very badly not only to be right, but to be right in such a way that other people’s wrongness is culpable. We like the idea that either we can persuade others of whatever we think, or else they’re just being stubborn. This is not perhaps our most amiable quality. But it’s better to admit that it’s there, and as rampant among scholars and apologists as anybody else, than to feign a neutrality we do not possess.
What is belief really? … It is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is incommensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up. … Meaning is the bread on which man, in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists. Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abundance. … No man can pull himself up out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descartes still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions. … Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.3
A teddy bear is always a gift.
So what do I mean when I talk about intuition and recognition? I mean that certain things are, in some rudimentary fashion, present in our minds by nature: the basic mathematical-logical laws of thought, the basic principles of right and wrong, and at least some basic ideas of what things are, or what kinds of things are. This isn’t to say we innately know everything, even about the rudiments of ideas that we possess. But it is to say that we must have something to work with if we are to know and reason at all; unto every one that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Put more simply, I’m saying ‘Tabula rasa is a load of bull-honkey.’4
I won’t pause here to try and puzzle out what all of these innate ideas are; I don’t have the talent to do so without a lot of assistance, time, and space, but also it isn’t essential to our purpose. But the three categories I mentioned above—those of logic, morality, and beings5—must (I think) be in our minds from the start, as things we just see, or we can’t know or learn anything. Call them knowledge of the possible, knowledge of the good, and knowledge of the factual. Again, I’m not saying we know any of these things exhaustively from birth, even in a latent state; still less am I saying that you never find odd gaps in certain minds, or that every person is able to express the knowledge they possess. I’m saying only that there is a standard outfit, and that it is the only thing that makes both individual knowledge and a communion of minds possible.
The generally shared character of human morals, across ethnicities, eras, and religions, is in my view one of the strongest testimonies for this view. Human moral codes do differ, to be sure, but the commonality is considerable (C. S. Lewis’ summary in the appendix to The Abolition of Man is an excellent source), even on points that are disadvantageous to their practitioners, like courage in battle or kindness to the poor.
This seems to me to be the only way to rescue Natural Law Theory. Many of its devotees may not regard this as much of a salvage, since it would have to be content with more modest claims: since we don’t know what the gaps in someone’s mind may be, including our own, we must be ready both to accept instruction and to allow others the liberty of not seeing something we find obvious. Because maybe they don’t, or maybe we’re missing something they do see. However, that’s a price I’m willing to pay in return for a consistent epistemology.
The difference this makes to NLT is that all the mucking about with averages and proportions and figuring out what counts as what, which I wrote about in my last post, can be swept away—because we do recognize the difference between animals and humans, don’t we? And we do intuit a distinction between the intrinsic purpose of something and its bonus effects. We don’t need to get all of our premises from observation: there are some that are axiomatic. I don’t know whether we intuit that homosexuality, contraception etc., are wrong (I sure don’t); there, I do consider NLT useful and sound. But the basis on which it’s constructed must, must be internally coherent, and as far as I can see, the basis set forth by Thomism just isn’t.
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1I have been forced (alas) to truncate Miss Sayers’ thought grossly here; I warmly recommend The Mind of the Maker to anybody who will stand still long enough. The first part of the epigraph is a quotation from one of her plays, The Zeal of Thy House, which expresses in dramatic form what Mind expresses in essayistic form.
2And perhaps they did. I don’t know any passages in which either one addresses the matter, but my acquaintance with both sages is amateur.
3Introduction to Christianity, pp. 72-73.
4Tabula rasa (Latin for ‘blank slate’) is the phrase famously used by John Locke, the English Liberal philosopher, to describe the human mind at birth.
5Vaguely put, I know. I haven’t come up with a good word for this category; universals might do. While of course we learn about beings as we go, the notion that there are kinds of things—that John and Jane and Mary are all humans, as opposed to just a bunch of objects—is not an obvious one when you think about it. Or rather, it’s only obvious because our minds are built that way, whether you regard that as accidental or significant.