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Conversations with Augustine: Essay #1, Augustine, Henry of Ghent, and Scotus

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 31, 2008

Per Caritatem’s first annual Augustine Blog Conference is now underway!  Below is the first of a series of posts bringing Augustine into conversation with philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, Reformation, Modernity, and Postmodernity. The format of the conference is as follows:  an essay will be posted for a two days, then a short commentary on the essay will be posted and will remain on the site for two days or as long as (good) discussion continues.


Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus on Divine Memory:
Pillagers of Augustine’s De Trinitate 15.4.25-26

By Scott M. Williams
Oriel College, Oxford University

In this short essay I wish to take a look at a brief section of Augustine’s magisterial work De Trintate. Anyone who has read Augustine’s De Trin. knows that it is in large part a (hermeneutical) meditation on Holy Scripture and a speculative exploration that aims to find the most suitable imago Dei in human creatures as a model for understanding the unity and plurality of the Trinity of divine persons. One such imago Dei that Augustine seriously considers is a psychological analogy of memory, understanding and will (love). Of course, as Augustine quickly points out, this analogy has a heavy limp because if we were to assert that the Father is analogous to divine memory, the Son is analogous to divine understanding, and the Holy Spirit is analogous to divine love, then it would follow that each divine person in se does not have what the other two divine persons have, except by being related to that person. Augustine finds this consequence unacceptable because then e.g., the Father could not love except by means of the Holy Spirit. But the Father as such can and does love e.g., the Son as such. So this psychological analogy limps badly. Nevertheless, suppose we don’t assert that the Father just is divine memory, but that divine memory is the precise power by which the Father ‘generates’ the Son/Word; and, that each divine person in se ‘has’ divine memory, understanding and love, it is just that the Word proceeds from the Father because the Father ‘generates’ the Word by the generative power of memory. In De Trin. 15.4.25-26 we find Augustine nearing the end of his discussion of what it means for God the Father to ‘speak’ or ‘generate’ or ‘produce’ God the Son by the generative power called memory which is like a storehouse of knowledge. Prior to this discussion in De Trin. 15.4.25-26 Augustine has laid out some basic claims that we must heed if we are to understand his discussion of the Father’s ‘generating’ the Son/Word by the generative power of memory. First, God is entirely simple and not composed of parts like matter, time, potentiality and actuality (cf. Book 1). Second, God necessarily and timelessly is a Trinity of persons. Third, we can say ‘the Father is God, the Father is wise’ not precisely because the Father is related to the Son, but precisely because the Father is identical with the divine substance, and likewise for the Son and Holy Spirit (cf. Books 5-7). With these preliminaries in mind, I can now get to the issue at hand, namely what does Augustine say about the Father’s ‘generating’ the Son in De Trinitate 15.4.25-26?

Augustine: De Trinitate 15.4.25-26

When I look at this passage I see that Augustine suggests (at least) two ways we can consider what is sufficient for the Father’s ‘generating’ or ‘speaking’ the Son/Word. He presumes that the Son/Word is knowledge from knowledge (notitia de notitia). He counts the first notitia as divine memory, and the second notitia as the generated Word. But just how are we to think of the Father’s having generated his Son/Word?

On the first view (15.4.25 para.1) suppose that memory is like stored knowledge which you are not right now thinking about. Next, the Father’s act of thinking (directed at what is stored) generates the mental word, and that the mental word as such is not strictly identical with the Father’s ‘thinking’ but is a product dependent on the Father’s act of thinking. So, the Father’s act of thinking is like an instrument as it were that is sufficient to generate the Son/Word. In this first consideration of the Father’s generation of the Son/Word, the Father’s act of thinking by the generative power of divine memory is necessary and sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word.

However, after considering this way of characterizing what is necessary and sufficient for the Father’s generation of the Son/Word, Augustine considers a second view (15.4.25 para. 2-3).  With his doctrine of divine simplicity in mind, Augustine advocates that we ought to deny that the Father’s act of thinking is either necessary or sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. He doubts the need to postulate the Father’s act of thinking for the generation of the Son/Word because he is worried that by asserting this we would assert some sort of composition of potentiality and actuality in God. Suppose divine memory is the potentiality to think of something, and actually thinking of something is the actualization of memory. But if we wish to deny that God is constituted by the composition of potentiality and actuality, even if this potentiality is eternally actualized, then we should deny that a potentiality (divine memory) and an actuality (the Father’s act of thinking) would be sufficient to explain the Father’s having generated the Son/Word because we don’t want to suggest or imply a composition of potentiality and actuality in God. This last point about ‘suggesting to our readers’ is important because it shows that Augustine sees his readers as possibly misunderstanding what he has said in option one, and so he backs off being certain about the precise nature of the Father’s intellectual generation of the Son/Word. On this second view, the Son/Word is somehow generated by the Father’s memory, but we don’t know what it means to have generated the Son/Word other than meaning that the Son/Word has his origin from the Father’s memory.

As a result Augustine leaves options one and two open to his readers, just so long as they don’t commit particular errors that he has pointed out, like supposing that option one assumes a real composition of potentiality and actuality in God or that the Son/Word just is the Father’s act of thinking. It seems that Augustine fails to find an explanation which satisfies him as an account of the Father’s generation of the Son/Word that would be able to avoid misleading his readers into error. But, is there any theological explanation, or any explanation in general, that could guarantee that some reader would not misunderstand it? Augustine has a bit of anxiety over what Paul Ricoeur identifies as the ‘distanciation’ between author, text and implied readers. But Augustine’s De Trin. is not alone; all texts are cut adrift from the safety and security of their human author’s arms and preventions.

In summary, Augustine mentions (at least) two options for how to construe divine memory and the Father’s eternal generation of the Son/Word. The first view holds that the Father has the power (memory) to generate an act of thinking, and the Son/Word is somehow a by-product of this act of thinking such that the Son/Word is not precisely the Father’s act of thinking but a result of his act of thinking. And, the second view is that it is inappropriate given divine simplicity (no compositions in God) to suppose that the Father’s act of thinking has anything to do with the Father’s generation of the Son/Word because this might suggest to an implied reader some composition in God.

Henry of Ghent: How about Option One?

When Henry was teaching at the University of Paris from 1276-1292 much had changed in ‘speculative theology’ since Augustine’s time. Scholastic theologians like Henry of Ghent benefitted from various dialogue partners, most especially Plato, Aristotle, and arabian Commentators’ on Aristotle like Avicenna and Averroes. There were many other middle men too. Nevertheless, Augustine was a great authority too and greatly admired by folk like Henry of Ghent. In Henry’s hands were some rich sources by which he could put forth an account of the Father’s generation of the Son/Word. What then does he say of the Father’s generation of the Son/Word?

To read and study Henry of Ghent’s philosophical psychology is a very long and winding path. What follows is my interpretation of his take on Augustine’s two options mentioned above. Henry holds that memory is a necessary for the Father’s generation of the Son/Word, but does not see it precisely as a power generative of the Son/Word. Instead, Henry re-defines what ‘divine memory’ is; he denies that it is like a store house of knowledge because that would be an active potentiality in God. He suggests that the Father’s memory just is the Father’s act of thinking about the divine essence, and that the Father’s act of thinking is necessary for his generation of the Son/Word; however, the Father’s act of thinking is not sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. Henry develops the view that any intellect, created or divine, has a passive power and an active power. The passive power is the power to receive an act of thinking (caused by a present intelligible object); and, the active power can produce some intellectual product (e.g., a proposition, a syllogism, an intellectual habit, and the mental word) that is similar to a greater or lesser extent to what was thought about just beforehand. When the Father (eternally) passively receives the divine essence as an object for thought, he has an occurrent thought directed at the divine essence. And supposing he has this eternal occurrent thought, only then (as it were) does the Father generate an intellectual ‘copy’ of what he ‘was’ thinking about. So, the Father’s act of thinking is necessary but not sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. The Father’s generating the Son/Word by the active power of the divine intellect, which presupposes the Father’s occurrent thought, is sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. There are many more details in Henry’s philosophical psychology (e.g., Henry’s critique of ‘intelligible species’)  that brings him to hold this view about what is sufficient for the Father’s generation of the Son/Word, but there is no space for those here.

What Henry retains from Augustine is the idea in option one that the Father’s act of thinking is at least necessary for the generation of the Son/Word; but Henry rejects the assertion that this is also sufficient. What needs to be added is that the divine intellect has two powers: a passive power to have an occurrent thought, and an active power to generate a ‘copy’ of what was thought about beforehand. Of course, ‘copy’ needs to be explained but to do this I would need to discuss Henry’s category theory of substance and relation, his ‘material constitution’ model of divine persons (where the numerically one divine essence is the foundation of all personal properties, i.e., paternity, passive generation, and passive spiration), and his general account of passive and active powers. Suffice it to say, when I say that the divine Word is a ‘copy’ this should not entail that the Son/Word is numerically distinct from the singular divine substance/essence. Instead, it entails that the Son/Word is really distinct from the Father, but numerically identical with the divine substance/essence. There is math here that needs to be explained; but this math problem is in no way peculiar to Henry’s Trinitarian theology.

Before moving on to Duns Scotus I should mention that in recent years it has been discovered that Henry’s Trinitarian theology was somewhat innovative in the late 13th century. By ‘innovative’ I don’t mean something like a revolution– but an organic branching out of the Christian tradition. Henry’s account may not ‘work’ in the end, nevertheless it provoked much discussion in the late 13th century. What was unique to Henry is that he brought Augustine’s psychological analogy to the heart of Trinitarian theology, which is what Russell Friedman argued in his 1996 unpublished PhD. dissertation and what Jos Decorte has argued in various journal articles over the last 15 years. On the one hand Dominicans like Thomas Aquinas held that Augustine’s opposed relations account was the explanatorily prior account, and that stacked on top of it was an emanations account, and on top of that a psychological account. On the other hand Franciscans like Bonaventure had reversed the explanatory order such that the emanation account was first, and the opposed relations and psychological accounts were secondary. But Henry, who was a ‘secular priest’ that dabbled in Dominican, Franciscan and Victorine theological sources, argued that a psychological account is first in the explanatory order, then the emanations account and lastly the opposed relations account. Consequently, in the late 13th century various Franciscan theologians championed Henry’s psychological cause, including John Duns Scotus. Of course, Scotus was no slack, he more often than not critically expanded Henry’s initial insights.

One caveat: although I do not mention it here, Henry has a critically developed Victorine Trinitarian theology. This comes to the fore in two ways. First, he intends to give ‘necessary reasons’ for why God is a Trinity of persons just as Richard St. Victor did by arguing from the nature of perfect love; although unlike Richard, Henry argues from divine intellect and will (love). Second, his account of the Father and Son’s volitional production of the Holy Spirit requires their mutual love. But for our purposes here, I have focused entirely on divine memory and the Father’s intellectual generation of the Son/Word.

John Duns Scotus: How About Option Two?

Duns Scotus disagreed with option one above, and went with something like option two. He denies that the Father’s act of thinking is necessary for the Father’s generation of the Son/Word. Like Augustine, Scotus agrees that divine memory is like a storehouse of knowledge and it is a generative/productive power. But even more, divine memory can produce two kinds of things, an operation (i.e. an act of thinking) and a product (i.e. the Son/Word). So, when God the Father uses the divine memory he does two things by two kinds of action. By memory the Father quasi-produces his own act of thinking. And, by memory the Father generates/produces the Son/Word. These two actions are causally unrelated to one another. Whereas Augustine and Henry (in option one) supposed that the Father’s act of thinking was at least necessary for the Father’s generation of the Son/Word, Scotus rejects this claim in favor of something akin to Augustine’s option two that denies the Father’s act of thinking has anything to do with the generation of the Son/Word.

If one finds Scotus’s position on this question generally amenable, there is a catch to be noticed. What are we to make of the claim that the Father ‘quasi-produces’ his own intellectual operation? I do not know what to make of it for the following reason. In his account of human cognition, Scotus argues that human memory is a productive power, and what it can produce is an act that is intellectual operation directed at some intentional content in the memory. So for example, suppose I know that JFK and C.S. Lewis both died on November 22, 1963 but am not right now thinking of this knowledge. Then at some later time, I will to produce an act of thinking that is directed at this knowledge. Consequently, if this account were true of humans, and this were part of the imago Dei in humans, why suppose that divine memory can have two kinds of productions, namely the Father’s production of his own act of thinking directed at knowledge in his memory, and the Father’s generation of the Son/Word. (By the way, Scotus defines divine memory as the ‘presence of the divine essence to the divine intellect’.) I’m sure Scotus has a subtle response to my worry, but I’ve yet to figure out what it is.


In De Trin. 15.4.24-26 Augustine discusses two ways to explain the Father’s generation of the Son/Word. In the first option he considers that the Father’s act of thinking is sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. But in the second option he denies that the Father’s act of thinking is causally related to the generation of the Son/Word because Augustine is worried about rejecting divine simplicity. As we saw above, Henry agreed with Augustine’s option one to the extent that the Father’s act of thinking does have to do with the Father’s generation of the Son/Word; although Henry denies that this is sufficient for the generation of the Son/Word. What needs to be clarified is that (a) the divine intellect has a passive power to have an act of thinking and an active power to generate the Word; and that (b) the Father’s act of thinking is presupposed for the Father’s generation of his Son/Word because the Son/Word must be a ‘copy’ of a prior ‘actually thought about object (i.e. the divine essence as occurrently known by the Father)’. Even more, on Henry’s view the Son/Word is not the Father’s own act of thinking (which is a view that Duns Scotus and some contemporary readers of Henry have attributed to Henry). There has been doubt about what Henry’s position is because Henry often described the divine intellect’s ‘active/productive power’ as the power ‘to reflect’ on a prior act of thinking of some object. But if one were to read far and wide enough in Henry’s massive Quodlibets and Summa, she should come to the conclusion that Henry’s rhetorical style sometimes obscures his teaching; with too many synonyms comes many obfuscations. On my view Henry does in fact follow Augustine’s prohibition against saying the Father in se does not know the divine essence except by means of the Son/Word. In one passage Henry outrightly denies that the Father is wise by being related to the Son/Word (cf. Augustine’s De Trin. Books 6-7; Henry’s Summa 39.6-7; 40.6-7).

Scotus rejects option one, and favors a version of option two. Scotus supposes that the Father’s act of thinking is causally unrelated to the generation of the Son/Word, even though divine memory is the same power productive of the Father’s own act of thinking of the divine essence, and the generated Son/Word. So, Scotus too follows Augustine’s prohibition against saying the Son/Word is the Father’s own act of thinking.

One reason Scotus rejects Henry’s position has to do with Scotus’s rejection of Henry’s (‘Latin’) teaching that the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) are numerically one positive entity. Scotus thinks of the divine persons as analogous to Peter, James and John. These humans have the same kind-nature, although numerically distinct instances of this kind-nature; but divine persons have the same kind-nature (divine essence) and numerically the same instance of this kind-nature. Nevertheless, the persons as such are positively distinct such that when the Father produces an act of thinking, it is his, but when the Father generates the Son/Word, he generates a (formally) distinct entity who nevertheless is constituted by numerically the same divine essence that constitutes the Father. (Scotus views the divine essence as akin to an ‘immanent universal’.) Putting Scotus’s view in such curt terms is not a technically pristine presentation of his account of divine simplicity because I have not elaborated on his ‘formal distinction’ and theory of individuation; still we can get near the bookshelf even if limping. In effect, Scotus’s dispute with Henry’s psychological claims rests in large part on a dispute over metaphysical claims regarding a very (very) particular ‘existential’ distinction between Father and Son.

If I were preaching, I would say that Henry read one paragraph of Augustine’s De Trin. in support of his own view, and Duns Scotus read the next paragraph in support of his own view. Of course, this is but one instance of many when scholastic A and scholastic B had opposite views on a given matter but had equal support from Augustine. I conclude that not only did Augustine pillage the Egyptians, so too did scholastics like Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus pillage their’s and our beloved saint.

A Tribute to Michael Brecker

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 27, 2008

Though this is probably old news to many, I recently found out that Michael Brecker, jazz saxophonist extraordinaire, died this past January at age 57 after battling leukemia for two years.  I had the opportunity to hear Brecker live in a small club in Seattle, and as most jazz enthusiasts, I was amazed at his technical skill and the ease with which he could execute angular lines at tempos beyond belief. Just prior to his death, Brecker was able to record one last album, Pilgrimage, with some of his long-time musical friends (Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, piano; Pat Metheny, guitar; John Patitucci, bass; and Jack DeJohnette, drums).

Someone put together a nice video as a tribute to Brecker, which you can hear by clicking the link below.

A Tribute to Michael Brecker

And You Thought Her First Thought Was “Mama”

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 17, 2008

Did you know that your child’s first conceptions are the transcendental conceptions of being, one, and good?  According to Robert Pasnau (articulating St. Thomas’s position), these transcendental conceptions rather than food, mother, father, etc are the first conceptions of a child’s mind.  As Pasnau explains,

“all of these more obvious candidates for a child’s first conceptions will presuppose one or more of the above transcendental ideas.  When a child utters the word ‘mama,’ the child must be expressing the thought either of mama’s presence (being), or of the desire for mama’s presence (being + good).  And to have a thought about any determinate object requires the conception of a discrete entity (one).  All of this takes some sophistication to recognize, let alone articulate, but Aquinas is of course not claiming that infants actually recognize their basic conceptual framework.  The claim, instead, is that the framework must be there, unarticulated, as a precondition on all subsequent thought” (Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature, p. 326).

I now feel completed affirmed with regard to a previous post.

Scotus Against the Philosophers: Ordered Love, Not Knowledge Perfects Human Rationality

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 13, 2008

Regarding Scotus and his late-thirteenth century context, Mary Beth Ingham and Mechthild Dreyer write:

“[Scotus’s] own philosophical re-working of key philosophical elements is best understood against the background of the overly intellectualized, philosophical model, especially as it had emerged from the 1250s and as it appeared in the constellation formed by several propositions condemned in 1277.  Taken together, these propositions offer a distinct portrait for human salvation that equates the intellectual life of the philosopher with that of the divinity.  This life can appear as a valid and viable alternative to a Christian life.  It offers all the elements of spiritual development:  asceticism, reflection, self-knowledge, meditation, good works.  The keystone of this life is the intellect, and how intellectual activity defines human dignity” (The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus, p. 7). As Aristotle, in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, tells us, the contemplative life is the best life.  Scotus, however, disagrees and seeks to correct this view by way of Aristotle’s own philosophical insights, and by transforming these insights as a result of his own reflections on divine revelation.  As Ingham and Mechthild explain,

“The philosophers are wrong, he [Scotus] argues; ordered love, not knowledge, defines and perfects human rationality.  Human dignity has it foundation in rational freedom.  In contrast to the philosophical, intellectualist model of human nature and destiny, the Franciscan offers and strengthens the Christian alternative, centered not merely on knowledge but on rational love.  Throughout his brief career, Scotus works to put together a more overtly Christian perspective on the world, the person, and salvation that might stand up to this philosophical intellectual/speculative model and, by using the best of its resources, transcend it.  The Franciscan tradition consistently defends a position wherein the fullest perfection of the human person as rational involves loving in the way God loves, rather than knowing in the way God knows.  His position in this overall project can be best understood within Franciscan spirituality, which emphasizes the will and its attraction to beauty, love, and simplicity.  The project itself can best be approached when we take care to see how it fits into the larger framework that informed his entire life, not simply his teaching and intellectual reflection.

In this way, it is a type of ‘faith seeking understanding’ a la Anselm, insofar as Scotus tries to lay out the deeper structure of a reality based upon divine rational love, a reality that is entirely consistent with Scripture, especially the scriptural depiction of a God as the personal God of the Exodus, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, a Trinity of persons who long to reveal themselves to us and, in that self-revelation, establish a covenant relationship” (pp. 7-8).

The Abstract Art of Vasily Kandinsky

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 10, 2008

Kandinsky, himself an accomplished musician, once said “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” The concept that color and musical harmony are linked has a long history, intriguing scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton. Kandinsky used color in a highly theoretical way associating tone with timbre (the sound’s character), hue with pitch, and saturation with the volume of sound. He even claimed that when he saw color he heard music.


Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky spent his early childhood in Odessa. His parents played the piano and the zither and Kandinsky himself learned the piano and cello at an early age. The influence of music in his paintings cannot be overstated, down to the names of his paintings Improvisations, Impressions, and Compositions. In 1886, he enrolled at the University of Moscow, chose to study law and economics, and after passing his examinations, lectured at the Moscow Faculty of Law. He enjoyed success not only as a teacher but also wrote extensively on spirituality, a subject that remained of great interest and ultimately exerted substantial influence in his work. In 1895 Kandinsky attended a French Impressionist exhibition where he saw Monet’s Haystacks at Giverny. He stated, “It was from the catalog I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion. Dimly I was aware too that the object did not appear in the picture…” Soon thereafter, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky left Moscow and went to Munich to study life-drawing, sketching and anatomy, regarded then as basic for an artistic education.

Ironically, Kandinsky’s work moved in a direction that was of much greater abstraction than that which was pioneered by the Impressionists. It was not long before his talent surpassed the constraints of art school and he began exploring his own ideas of painting – “I applied streaks and blobs of colors onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could…” Now considered to be the founder of abstract art, his work was exhibited throughout Europe from 1903 onwards, and often caused controversy among the public, the art critics, and his contemporaries. An active participant in several of the most influential and controversial art movements of the 20th century, among them the Blue Rider which he founded along with Franz Marc and the Bauhaus which also attracted Klee, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), and Schonberg, Kandinsky continued to further express and define his form of art, both on canvas and in his theoretical writings. His reputation became firmly established in the United State s through numerous exhibitions and his work was introduced to Solomon Guggenheim, who became one of his most enthusiastic supporters.

In 1933, Kandinsky left Germany and settled near Paris, in Neuilly. The paintings from these later years were again the subject of controversy. Though out of favor with many of the patriarchs of Paris’s artistic community, younger artists admired Kandinsky. His studio was visited regularly by Miro, Arp, Magnelli and Sophie Tauber.

Kandinsky continued painting almost until his death in June, 1944. his unrelenting quest for new forms which carried him to the very extremes of geometric abstraction have provided us with an unparalleled collection of abstract art.

*The text in this post is taken from WebMuseum, Paris.

Part 4: Sufficiency and Satire: Reading the Consolation through the Menippean Form

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 7, 2008

A guest post by Dan McClain.  Dan is a doctoral student of theology at the Catholic University of America and blogs at The Land of Unlikeness.


Sketches of Insufficiency

While Marenbon and Relihan disagree on the extent and the finality to which Boethius departs from Philosophy, the astute reader will certainly agree that Boethius’ subversion of Philosophy casts a dark cloud over her claim to achieve the summum bonum. The last part of my paper will try to elucidate what this idea of Philosophy’s insufficiency means with the assistance of the the French philosopher Maurice Blondel’s 1896 Letter on Apologetics. Blondel pursued a track similar to Boethius’ critique when he declared that philosophy, generically speaking, is insufficient to truly explain the natural need for the supernatural; philosophy can not explain God or this need for the infinite.[1] Blondel sees in philosophy, ancient and modern, a claim to self-sufficiency through intellectualism, or rationalism; the philosopher desires the whole of wisdom and thinks philosophy is capable of achieving that whole. Through contemplation and rationalism, philosophy claims that the philosopher can ascend to a complete and controlling truth.[2] But really, the whole of truth entails not only an explanation but also a grasp of the supernatural, of which philosophy has never been capable. Philosophy, he says, “claims to attain to reality and to apprehend truth – so that between itself and being, between knowledge and life itself, there is an identify which is simply taken for granted.[3] However, philosophy will only truly be itself when it gives up its self-sufficiency. Rather, Blondel proposes that the philosophical project, as an examination of the human capacity for knowledge, does indeed point the philosopher beyond. Beyond what?[4] Philosophy can and ought to continue sketching out the immanent and subjective realm. However, it must not believe that these judgments bear any absolute value against the supernatural, whether they be positive judgments or judgments that dismiss the idea of the supernatural altogether.[5] What philosophy is able to do in the realm of the supernatural is to study the impact of the supernatural in the realm of phenomena, which also entails the study of human consciousness in the light of the supernatural.

Of course, my comparison is complicated by the curious fact that proto-scholastic Boethius writes the Consolation in a bricolage style, while the Frenchman, Blondel, writes in a highly didactic style. However, if Marenbon and Relihan are even partly right that Boethius is asking Philosophy difficult questions that highlight her inability to “apprehend”[6] the truth, as Blondel puts it, then their projects bear a remarkable consanguinity. Both philosophers are exposing weaknesses that prevent philosophy, of any age, from making totalizing claims about the relationship between natural and supernatural. This is not merely a negative appraisal of philosophy. Their chastening of philosophy is directed at the larger good of recovering the world as philosophy’s object, an object that Philosophy in the Consolation only grudgingly accepts.

Menippean Satire gave Boethius a middle path between pagan Philosophy and revealed religion. Understanding the Consolation in this light, we can see that he used this format in tandem with a classical dialogue in order to explore the limitations of Philosophy.[7] And while it is certainly not an irreverent exploration, the combination of the structure and the gaps and lack of overall cohesion in Philosophy’s arguments lead to the conclusion that the Boethius of the Consolation is questioning the sufficiency of philosophy to deliver the goods. Here, Relihan is more transparent than Marenbon when he points to the revelation that Boethius has about not only God but also God’s creation when Philosophy directs his gaze toward the world “below”. Whereas haughty and transcendent Philosophy perceives that she is making an absolute claim about the world, its fallibility, its transience, and its ability to give true happiness, Boethius sees the world as God’s creation. He has sees that he is part of this world, and indeed that Philosophy, too, is part of this world.[8]


Blondel, Maurice. The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma. Translated by Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964;

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy, rev. ed. Trans. Victor Watts. London: The Penguin Group, 1999 (first translation 1969).

Boethius. Theological Tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy, new reprint ed. Trans. H. F. Stewart, et al. Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 2003.

Chadwick, Henry. The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1981.

Dronke, Peter. Verse with Prose from Petronius to Dante. The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Hankey, Wayne. “Ad intellectum ratiocinatio: Three Procline logics, the Divine Names of Psuedo-Dionysius, Eriugena’s Periphyseon and Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae.” In Studia Patristica, vol. XXIX, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone. Leuven: Peeters, 1997. Accessed April 29, 2008 on

Marenbon, John. Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Marenbon, John. “Rationality and Happiness: Interpreting Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.” In Rationality and Happiness: From the Ancients to the Early Medievals. Yu, Jiynan and Gracia, Jorge J.E., eds. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003.

McInerny, Ralph. Boethius and Aquinas. Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press, 1990.

Relihan, Joel C. Ancient Menippean Satire. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Relihan, Joel C. Boethius, “Consolation of Philosophy'” Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001.

Relihan, Joel C. The prisoner’s philosophy: life and death in Boethius’s Consolation. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007.


[1] Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma, trans. Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).

[2] Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma, 172; however, Blondel nuances this point by explaining that ancient philosophy enjoyed a felicitous relationship with theology in that theology brought with it a broadening in scope to philosophy’s project, so that philosophy never even noticed that theology was making claims that philosophy could only answer by employing the object and methods of theology (173); in the middle ages, philosophy continued to be ancient while theology matured; but in the modern era an “animosity” grew between dusty, “sterile” scholasticism and the ancient reason it has essentially enslaved (174).

[3] Although, Blondel specifies that modern philosophy (circa 1900) tends to do the opposite, to limit itself and its claims on truth, and its claims to identification with truth, looking instead for truth outside of itself and its systems (The Letter on Apologetics, 176); nevertheless, the perspective of immanence that modern philosophy takes includes a rejection of ontology that Blondel argues is just as totalizing and “transcendent” as the ancient philosophy of transcendence; as such, he will treat the two together throughout the remainder of the book (The Letter on Apologetics, 179).

[4] “instead of just describing the whole phenomenon of though and action in man’s consciousness (which would have been consonant with the critical spirit), it still claims to provide the equivalent or even the reality of all the noumenon” (The Letter on Apologetics, 178).

[5] “One can not make a transcendent truth of the negation of the transcendent or of the supernatural (The Letter on Apologetics, 178-79).

[6] Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics, 176.

[7] Marenbon, Boethius, 161-163.

[8] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 136.