Monday, February 20, 2012

Anselm's Platonism and the Development of Doctrine

In Questions of Authority I posed the following question:
This leads us to the question: is it possible that the Church can mistakenly put forward as doctrine theologizing that is based on misunderstandings of Scripture?
The example I provided was one that Avery Dulles cited re Original Sin:
In recounting the challenges faced by the authors of the Catechism, Dulles points out one doctrinal matter in particular:
The doctrine of original sin caused particular difficulty, and was studied at length by a special commission. In the past fifty years numerous theologians have proposed ways of updating the traditional teaching, which relied heavily on contestable interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis and of Paul's letter to the Romans.
Josef Pieper, writing in 1960 in his well known survey Scholasticism, touched on these issues from an historical standpoint in his treatment of Anselm of Canterbury—most famous for his so-called ontological “proof” for the existence of God. Pieper begins the extended passage ( pp. 60-65) by noting that, of the two ways in which human reason may be “overvalued,” the “overvaluation of logical deduction from general principles,” is
especially linked to the Platonic-Augustinian view of the world; it is a latent peril of that view. And it is this peril of “deductive rationalism” which Anselm of Canterbury conjured up, and which thereafter lingered in Western Christianity.

We will make two preliminary observations. The first is that what Pieper refers to as an “overvaluation” of “reason” is in reality directly related to the fascination almost all men have for the manipulation of abstract concepts by means of the rules of formal logic. Obviously, reason itself cannot be overvalued; the problem that arises is that men are prone to mistake concepts for true reality, and thus to assume that deduction from abstract concepts (what Pieper refers to as “general principles”) can alone lead to true insights into reality. As we have stressed, this error has maintained itself in the West due to Plato's identification of the heavenly “archetypes” of archaic man's ontology with the Forms/Ideas that Plato identified in his own speculation (which he termed “philosophy”) as the ultimate realities. This archaic ontology, which views all reality as participation in heavenly archetypes, is the worldview of men in traditional societies. What Pieper terms an “overvaluation of reason,” has occurred numerous times throughout history, but for purposes of Western thought it follows on the development among the Greek thinkers (and, quintessentially, with Plato), who took the fateful step of removing these archetypes from their proper setting in myth and metaphor and seeking truth by the methodic or logical manipulation of the archetypes or Ideas.

Our second observation relates to the first and has to do with the way in which this Greek or Hellenic style of speculation has been mediated to the West—to such an extent that Alfred North Whitehead has characterized Western thought as essentially “a series of footnotes to Plato.” The form in which the Platonic style of speculation has been mediated to the West is the Christian-Neoplatonism of Augustine. Anselm played a key role in this process, for Anselm made of Augustine a virtual touchstone of right Christian thinking. As Pieper notes, in his Monologion Anselm states that he will base his arguments on reason alone (not on Scripture) and then “confidently expresses his conviction that the tractate contains nothing which could not be harmonized with the doctrines of Augustine.”

Pieper then adds:
The disastrous consequences of that approach—which in Anselm's day still lay in the future—have since come so fully to light that we today feel profound uneasiness, not to say alarm, when we read the rational arguments that Anselm considers sufficient proof of the truths of Christian faith. For example, Anselm attempts to demonstrate that salvation through God incarnate was necessary on compelling rational grounds.
Pieper next proceeds to a consideration of another example of Anselm's use of reason, and this example is close to the very heart of Christianity: the meaning of the Incarnation. However, Pieper also draws some general conclusions on how the Christian (for Pieper specifically states that his remarks are not intended for the non-Christian alone) ought to handle this type of speculation, and his conclusions regarding “theology” are very close to our own remarks (above) regarding “theologizing”:

... The interpretation customary up to the time of Gregory the Great went about as follows: From the time that Adam committed the first human sin, Satan had a legal claim upon all of humanity; this claim could lose its validity and be made ineffective only by Satan's wrongfully attempting--perhaps even because he had been inveigled into the attempt--to profane an utterly sinless man, that is to say, Christ. And so on. Only against this background can we see Anselm's arguments in full and distinct outline. What Anselm says is this: If man's original sin is to be extinguished in such a manner that it is not simply forgotten, but really "redeemed," paid for and "settled"--which means, in such manner that the dignity of both creditor an debtor is respected--then someone must "pay" the debt who is both at once: God and man. That is Anselm's interpretation, which has ever since been part and parcel of theology. A present-day Christian could no longer consider the earlier interpretation even as an abstract possibility.

(For the non-Christian, incidentally, and perhaps not for him alone, we must sound a cautionary note concerning the "claims to validity" of such interpretations in general. For at first glance it does seem that the "Christian point of view" is contained within these interpretations and "theories," and that consequently the content of that "Christian point of view" is always changing. To this, we must answer with a firm "No." The Christian's faith has to do primarily with facts, not with the interpretation of facts. The Christian believes in something real, not in this or that theory about the reality. He believes in what was revealed in the words of God; but he does not actually believe in theology. Now every interpretation, including Anselm's, is theology. What then is the believed truth behind these theologies? ... (62-63)

We find Pieper's strictures to be very sound, although we left the words "in the words of God" unbolded, since what we actually believe in is what was revealed in Jesus. But this is why Paul, when he talks about passing on what was handed down to him, talks about facts and leaves his own theologizing for later. (62-63)

Pieper next provides an extended treatment of Anselm's “ontological proof,” which we will pass over. However, he concludes his section on Anselm by once again returning to a broader historical perspective. This perspective is framed in the traditional contrast of Aristotle and Plato. While the relationship between these two thinkers is more complex than Pieper's brief remarks allow for, Pieper's perspective does emphasize the importance of Mircea Eliade's characterization of Plato as the thinker who transmitted the thought of archaic humanity in “philosophical” form, “through the dialectic means which the spirituality of his age made available to him,” as well as the validity of Whitehead's observation regarding the overarching importance of Plato for Western thought:
In this context Aristotle stands for the belief that man, through study of objective reality and assembling of concrete experience whereas the name Plato stands for the alternate belief that man is so constituted that he can get at the essential reality of the world directly, not through the medium of external experience; that, in other words, by closing his eyes as if summoning up remembrance, man can gain entry into the heart of reality.
It is clear at first glance that the thinkers who accept Anselm's argument stand on the side of Plato—which within the framework of Occidental philosophy virtually means: on the side of Augustine. Their company includes Alexander of Hales, Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, and Duns Scotus, as well as Descartes and Leibnitz. As for Anselm himself, in the very first sentences of the Proslogion we come upon the key Platonic phrase: “Enter into the chamber of your heart...” (76)
Obviously, Pieper is invoking the Platonic “doctrine” of anamnesis or recollection, by which Plato purports to explain human knowledge in “philosophical myths.” Man, says Plato, upon the occasion of sense knowledge recollects the archetypes (or “Forms/Ideas”) which he had known in a prior life before his soul was inserted into a body; these ideas are true reality, and the “recollection” of these ideas Plato compares to the perception of shadows on the wall of a cave cast by the unseen but true realities. This “doctrine” was “Christianized” by Augustine in his doctrine of Divine Illumination, which David Knowles correctly states “alone guarded an Augustinian from a general scepticism when the pure Platonic doctrine of ideas [known through anamnesis] had gone.” Curiously, Pieper doesn't mention Kant in his catalog of Western Platonists, for Kant's categories of thought are the prime example of secularized Platonism, the secular transformation of Plato's doctrine of Ideas.

The mention of Duns Scotus, however, is significant. Later, beginning at p. 136, Pieper treats Scotus at some length. We hope to return to Scotus at greater length, also, as his influence has been substantial, so we will here refer only to Pieper's way of connecting Anselm's style of thought to that of Scotus. As we may surmise from the way Pieper connected Anselm and Scotus in his catalog of Platonists, there is no coincidence involved.

Thus, after first alluding to what will surely strike most modern Christians as a particularly bizarre example of Anselm's rationalism (drawn, however, directly from Augustine's view that only that number of human souls will be saved that is necessary to replace the number of fallen angels who were lost):
It is therefore necessary that they [the fallen angels] be replaced from human nature, since there is no other [nature] from which they could be replaced.
Pieper continues:
I have already said that the Christian of today is inclined to greet such arguments with very mixed feelings, with a compound of astonishment and extreme discomfiture. Nevertheless, we refer to such arguments, and deliberately evoke that embarrassment, in order to convey more directly the significance of Duns Scotus' position. (137)
It's possible that Pieper had in mind Scotus' use of Anselm's thought in a controversy in which Scotus played a significant role. I quote here from Wikipedia's Scotus entry:
Perhaps the most influential point of Duns Scotus' theology was his defense of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. At the time, there was a great deal of argument about the subject. The general opinion was that it was appropriate, but it could not be seen how to resolve the problem that only with Christ's death would the stain of original sin be removed. … Citing Anselm of Canterbury's principle, "potuit, decuit, ergo fecit" (God could do it, it was appropriate, therefore he did it), Duns Scotus devised the following argument: Mary was in need of redemption like all other human beings, but through the merits of Jesus' crucifixion, given in advance, she was conceived without the stain of original sin. God could have brought it about (1) that she was never in original sin, (2) she was in sin only for an instant, (3) she was in sin for a period of time, being purged at the last instant. Whatever of these was more excellent should probably be attributed to Mary.[7] This apparently careful statement provoked a storm of opposition at Paris, and suggested the line 'fired France for Mary without spot' in the famous poem "Duns Scotus's Oxford," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This argument appears in Pope Pius IX's declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
An obvious observation is that Anselm's "principle"--a prime example of the peril (Pieper's word) of "deductive rationalism"--is in fact, like all rationalisms, a recipe for subjectivism in theology.  However, since this dogma relies for its meaning on the dogma of Original Sin, it may be well to recall the words of Avery Dulles, previously cited:
A close reading of the Catechism shows that the authors were aware of the figurative language of the biblical accounts and do not impose a literalist understanding of the Genesis stories about Adam and Eve. It remains the task of religious educators and theologians to show how certain traditional formulations, repeated in the Catechism, may be subject to reinterpretation in the light of modern science and exegesis.
More recently, Benedict XVI has asked:
However, as people of today we must ask ourselves: what is this original sin? What does St Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still sustainable today? Many think that in light of the history of evolution, there is no longer room for the doctrine of a first sin that then would have permeated the whole of human history. And, as a result, the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer would also lose its foundation. Therefore, does original sin exist or not?
Perhaps the first step in resolving these difficult issues is to come to an explicit understanding of how man's thought has developed from archaic ontology, yet how the survival of the influence of this mode of thought in various guises, Platonic as well as Christian—indeed, as we saw in Chesterton's Thomist View of Myth, how this mode of thought remains fundamental to human nature—has influenced theologizing through the centuries. Only in this way can the Church develop a coherent theory of revelation and dogma.

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