Conversations with Augustine: Essay #1, Augustine, Henry of Ghent, and Scotus
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.
AUGUSTINE AND THE MIDDLE AGES
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.