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Part II: Alyosha and Zarathustra on Com-passion and a Genuine Embodied Life

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 28, 2008

[Click here for part I]

We see the manifestations of Nietzsche’s pessimism in contrast with Dostoevsky’s optimism in their widely divergent views of love, compassion and pity.  Operating out of a hermeneutic of suspicion, Zarathustra views the Christian teaching of love thy neighbor as inauthentic-a mere mask for self-aggrandizement due to a lack of self-love.   In criticism of the teaching, Zarathustra proclaims:

You crowd around your neighbor and have fine words for it.  But I say unto you:  your love of the neighbor is your bad love of yourselves.  You flee to your neighbor from yourselves and would like to make a virtue out of that:  but I see through your “selflessness.”[1]

From one perspective, Zarathustra can be seen as challenging Christians to examine their motives and to question themselves as to why they serve, help and spend time with others.   On this read, Zarathustra shares common ground with Fr. Zosima, as the latter regularly warned of the dangers of lying to oneself and how this practice eventually results in a person’s inability to discern truth from falsehood. For example, in Fr. Zosima’s conversation Fyodor Pavlovich, Zosima exhorts Fyodor Pavlovich with the following:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own life comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love.[2]

As Zosima explains, self-deception is a manifestation of self-hatred, which in turn affects one’s ability to genuinely love others.  A person overcome with self-hatred has nothing to give others. Operating out of emptiness and lack, he ends up using others in an attempt to fill an inner void.  Thus, on Fr. Zosima’s account, truth and love are intertwined.  If one loses the ability to discern truth from falsehood, one loses the ability to love both oneself and others.  On this point, both Zarathustra and Zosima agree-a person must genuinely be “at home with himself” before he can authentically love and serve others.   Zarathustra, however, takes this insight and concludes, given his negative interaction with Christian “actors,” that the Christian doctrine of love thy neighbor is nothing more than a mask of hypocrisy.   Zosima, in contrast, aware of the tendencies in both Christians and non-Christians to deceive themselves through rationalizations, encourages individuals to seek Christ’s forgiveness and to allow His transforming grace to re-structure their habits so that they might learn to love and serve authentically, out of gratitude.  The faith-stance of Zosima and Alyosha allow each to offer critiques of the human situation without falling into a morass of despair.  As despair or something strongly resembling it seems inevitable or at least highly likely, when, like Zarathustra and Nietzsche, suspicion and doubt become the primary lenses through which the world and others are interpreted.

Throughout Nietzsche’s narrative Zarathustra engages in a polemic against any worldview or system of thought that he deems dualistic, that is, one which sets an other-worldly world over against this world.  In his critique, Zarathustra rails against both Platonism and Christianity, claiming that both exalt a realm completely separate from our present world, a realm in which all things embodied have no place.  The Christian, of course, would want to stress the differences between Platonism traditionally understood and the historic Christian faith.  For example, in Orthodox Christianity, given the centrality of the Incarnation and its emphasis on sacramental life and reality, one could establish a strong argument to the contrary, viz., that embodied living is essential to the Christian in this life.  Even so, the Christian ought to pay close attention to Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) critique of Platonic dualism, being alert to the ways in which such dualistic, dis-emobodied thinking has infected or has the potential to infect its own teachings.  Though we find common ground between Zarathustra and the Christian faith on the importance of valuing physical creation in all its manifestations, or as Zarathustra puts it, remaining “faithful to the earth,” each arrives at this conclusion from completely different motivations.[3] For the Christian, creation itself is a both gift of God and is something that God Himself not only sustains but “becomes” through the Incarnation.  For in the Incarnation, the Word becomes flesh and dwells as a human with humans, opening the way for intimate fellowship between creature and Creator, human and divine, infinite and finite.  Given the Christian understanding of God as the source of all creation, as well as God’s own choice to unite himself to flesh in the Incarnation-not simply during his earthly sojourn but for all eternity-to denigrate creation is to denigrate God.   Here we have both a reverence for that which is Other than creation (God) and an appreciation for the work of that Other (creation). For Zarathustra, however, there is no transcendent Other-there is this world and this world only, and we must embrace it in all of its joys and sufferings.  Moreover, given Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which, on the one hand, encourages us to make our choices count and live fully in this world, one the other hand, produces a nagging fear that the wide-spread mediocrity so frequently encountered in the here and now and best epitomized in the nihilistic “last men” so despised by Zarathustra, is destined to be our recurring fate.

Returning to Zosima and Alyosha, the narrator portrays both men as possessing an uncanny ability to ascertain much about individual through conversation and attentive listening.  As a result of his friendship with Zosima, Alyosha learned how to put into practice the elder’s habit of restraining himself from judging a person in an excessively critical or self-righteous way; yet, neither men hesitated to offer advice, correction, strong exhortation, or to express offense at evil and injustice.  We see this restraint in Alyosha’s interactions with the peasant boy Ilyusha.   Alyosha’s first encounter with Ilyusha and his schoolmates occurs in book IV, chapter 3.[4] Alyosha, who in many ways manifested the innocence, purity and wonder so common to children, found himself drawn to children and was in no way disinclined or reluctant to engage them.  As our narrator informs us, “Alyosha had never from his Moscow days been able to pass children without taking notice of them.”[5] Even with his great admiration of children, Alyosha was also keenly aware of the ways in which young schoolboys tormented one another and often quite mercilessly.  Indeed, when Alyosha is introduction to Ilyusha, he finds the young boy of ten facing a group of six of his schoolmates, all armed with rocks in hand and poised to hurl them in his direction.  Realizing what was taking place, Alyosha immediately approached the group of boys and engaged them as peers.  While talking with the boys, Ilyusha, standing on the other side of the ditch, flung a stone into the group.  This set off an exchange of stone-throwing between the boys and Ilyusha, which resulted in both Alyosha and the peasant-boy Ilyusha receiving direct hits, the former in the shoulder and the latter in the head. Though Alyosha, an innocent bystander, had been struck with a stone from Ilyusha’s hand, he expressed no anger toward the boy but was clearly outraged at the group of six for attacking the younger boy.  Shocked at the group’s behavior, Alyosha cried, “‘What are you about!  Aren’t you ashamed, gentlemen?  Six against one!  Why, you’ll kill him!”[6] Then Alyosha, ran to protect the boy, using his own body as a screen to shield him from the onslaught of stones.  In the midst of a few more stone-throwing exchanges, Alyosha found out that the boys had been teasing Ilyusha for some time and that their teasing had been associated with the (at present) enigmatic phrase, “wisp of tow.”[7] Instead of immediately declaring the boy to be a disturbed, violent, trouble-making youth, Alyosha wonders what might have caused a young boy to act so aggressively.

Some time later while conversing with Katerina Ivanova, Alyosha is informed that his brother, Dmitri, in a fit of rage had recently attacked Ilyusha’s father, Snegiryov, a peasant captain, publicly humiliating him as he dragged him by the beard from a local tavern and beat him.  To make things worse, Ilyusha as well as a group of his classmates, had been walking home just at that moment and had witnessed the event.  After hearing Katerina’s retelling of the story, Alyosha at once put the pieces together and understood why Ilyusha had attacked him-he was after all a Karamazov, the brother of his father’s assailant.  Katerina also told Alyosha of the desperate situation of the peasant captain and his family and asked Alyosha to take two hundred rubles to the captain as a gift to help the family.  Alyosha, of course, happy to comply, took the money, thanked Katerina, and departed to the captain’s home.  At every stage Alyosha is willing to be involved-he doesn’t remain emotionally detached from people and their sufferings.  Rather, he, in Christ-like fashion, meets them in their suffering, choosing to be physically present with them, thus affirming and living out an embodied, incarnational way of being.

As mentioned earlier, Alyosha possessed a rather remarkable ability to discern the complex inner life of his fellow human beings.  For instance, in a subsequent section (IV.7) while conversing with Snegiryov, Alyosha remarked, “[s]choolboys are a merciless race, individually they are angels of God, but together, especially in schools, they are often merciless (безжалостны).”[8] The Russian word, безжалостны, translated in English as “merciless,” might be better translated as “pitiless,” as the noun from which it derives “жалость” has no active connotation but speaks of a feeling of pity for someone with no suggestion of external action toward that individual implied.  In contrast, the Russian word, “милость,” which is translated in English as “mercy,” expresses a more active meaning that goes beyond an internal feeling.  Though a feeling of pity may indeed be present, mercy contains the additional active aspect that moves a person to act on behalf of another.[9] Applying this distinction in meaning to Alyosha’s comment about the schoolboys, the idea is when banded together and bowing down to negative peer pressure, they adopt the spirit of the group and become so hardened that they lack even a feeling of pity for those whom they have determined are unacceptable to the group.  Lastly, it is also of interest to note that the adjective, милосердный [from the aforementioned noun, милость], translated “merciful” in English, is the word used in the Russian Bible to describe God’s mercy toward human beings.  Thus, if we consider the active aspect of милость when predicated of God as in common biblical phrase, “God is merciful” (Бог милосердный), we are struck with the wonder of God’s act on our behalf.  In other words, beyond feeling pity (analogically speaking), God actively demonstrates his mercy for us in and through the gift of his Son, who became flesh in order to unite us to Himself and bring us into intimate inter-trinitarian life.

[1] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 172.

[2] The Brothers Karamazov, p. 36.

[3] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 125.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, pp. 160-64.

[5] The Brothers Karamazov, p. 161.

[6] The Brothers Karamazov, p. 163.

[7] The Brothers Karamazov, p. 162.  Later, we find out that “wisp of tow” refers to the captain’s beard.

[8] The Brothers Karamazov, p. 188.  The Russian text reads, “Дети в школах  народ безжалостный: порознь ангелы божии, а  вместе,  особенно  в  школах,  весьма часто безжалостны.”

[9] Many thanks to my friend, Kostya Petrenko, lecturer at Baylor University, for sharing this insight.

Part I: Alyosha and Zarathustra on Com-passion and a Genuine Embodied Life

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 23, 2008

Both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche emphasize the importance of embodied life, of living fully in this world, and both issue stern warnings against living for the sake of abstract ideals or realms that may in fact have no connection with reality.  Of course the critiques of both authors, while sharing the similarities noted above, are wildly different in their respective details given the radically dissimilar and even opposed worldviews embraced by each.  Dostoevsky is a Russian Orthodox Christian and his Christian faith influences the over-arching vision of his novel just as Nietzsche’s atheism informs his work and the message he communicates.  In this essay, I highlight both the similarities and differences of both thinkers with regard to embodiment, compassion, pity and related topics via analysis of selected passages, which focus on the verbal exchanges and relational interactions of Alyosha and Zarathustra in the context of their respective narratives (Brothers Karamazov and Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

Twenty-year old, Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov, most often referred to by his Russian diminutive, Alyosha, is introduced early in The Brothers Karamazov, as the cassock-clad “future hero of the novel.”[1] Alyosha is the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and had been living in a monastery for the past year.  Though he was more than willing to spend the rest of his life in a cloistered environment, his most highly esteemed and dearly loved elder, Fr. Zosima, had, prior to his death, sent him back into the world to be an agent of good, carrying out a mission marked by active love toward all human beings.  Both Fr. Zosima and Alyosha are in many ways the Christ-like figures of the novel, as both have incarnational ministries that push them to enter into the sufferings and struggles of individuals from all walks of life.  Of all the people in Alyosha’s life, Fr. Zosima by far plays the most important role in molding Alyosha’s character and mindset.  Fr. Zosima is not an abstract ideal for Alyosha; rather, he is someone with whom Alyosha lived in close quarters on a day to day basis. Alyosha witnessed firsthand how Fr. Zosima’s faith shaped and directed both his own life and the way in which he treated others.  Whether peasants in their sufferings, fellow monks who despised the elder, or Fyodor Pavlovich playing the buffoon, Fr. Zosima strove to see the good in others and to view all human beings with respect and dignity given their creation in God’s image. Because of his intimate friendship with Fr. Zosima and a shared Christian faith, Alyosha likewise developed an ability to focus on the positive traits of the various individuals he encountered-including those who perplex him with their contemptible behavior.  This is not to suggest that Alyosha is naïve and ignorant of the evil in the world and the evil that co-exists in human hearts (including his own by his own admission).  Although quick to acknowledge that evil cuts through all human hearts in our present postlapsarian state, Alyosha is nonetheless keenly aware of the active love and power of God’s grace-grace that transformed Fr. Zosima, and grace that continues to change and motivate Alyosha and any individual open to receive it.  This optimist-leaning view of humankind is not a hollow, sentimental optimism, but an optimism that produces hope because of God’s active grace at work in human hearts. Alyosha’s hope-filled orientation to the world and humankind contrasts sharply with Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) more pessimist-leaning view of human beings, which seems to operate out of suspicion and a lack of trust.

To be sure, Zarathustra has his own version of something like good and evil cohabiting in the human heart.  For example, in part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we are presented with eight types of individuals with whom Zarathustra interacts and invites to his cave.[2] Whether considering kings, the leech, the magician or the voluntary beggar etc., we find that each possesses character traits that both attract and repulse Zarathustra.  For example, Zarathustra seems to admire the way in which the leech-a kind of specialized scientist-pours himself passionately into his work.  Yet, these specialists become “inverse cripples,”[3] who, though having great expertise in one area, lack wholeness as human beings.  Nietzsche metaphorically depicts such unbalanced individuals as “human beings who are nothing but a big eye or a big mouth or a big belly.”[4] Thus, perhaps Zarathustra’s encounters with these various types of individuals could be understood as Nietzsche’s awareness of something along the lines of Dostoevsky’s insight, viz., that humans are (in their present state) neither fully good nor fully evil.  Undoubtedly, the two thinkers would strongly disagree over precisely what good and evil are and whether evil might someday be eradicated from human experience and by what means.  In short, in their respective ways, both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche recognize that humans are a “mixed bag,” simultaneously exhibiting both virtuous and vicious characteristics.  Nonetheless, Dostoevsky’s openness to grace and the transforming power of love fosters hope that good has the potential to overcome the evil in the world and in our own hearts.


[1] Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Ed., Ralph E. Matlaw and revised (Garnett) trans., Ralph E. Matlaw.  New York:  Norton, 1976, p. 12.  (Hereafter, all citations from The Brothers Karamazov refer to this edition and translation).

[2] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche. Ed.and trans., Walter Kaufmann.  (New York:  Penguin, 1982), pp. 360-79.  (Hereafter, all citations refer to this translation).

[3] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 250.

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 250.

The Beauty of Arvo Pärt’s Transcendent-Immanent Music

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 15, 2008

“That is my goal: time and timelessness are connected. This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions….”

Arvo Pärt

I absolutely love Arvo Pärt’s music.  In case you are unfamiliar with Pärt, below is a brief biography copied verbatim from this website.


Born in Paide, Estonia in 1935, Pärt’s musical studies began in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Middle School, interrupted less than a year later while he fulfilled his National Service obligation as oboist and side-drummer in an army band. He returned to Middle School for a year before advancing to the Tallinn Conservatory in 1957 where his composition teacher was Professor Heino Eller. Pärt started work as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio, wrote music for the stage and received numerous commisions for film scores so that, by the time he graduated from the Conservatory in 1963, he could already be considered a professional composer. A year before leaving, he won first prize in the All-Union Young Composers’ Competition for a children’s cantata, Our Garden, and an oratorio, Stride of The World.

Living in the old Soviet Union, Pärt had little access to what was happening in contemporary Western music but, despite such isolation, the early 1960s in Estonia saw many new methods of composition being brought into use and Pärt was at the fore-front; his Nekrolog of 1960 was the first Estonian composition to employ serial technique. He continued with serialism through to the mid 60s in pieces such as the 1st and 2nd Symphonies and Perpetuum Mobile, but ultimately tired of its rigours and moved on to experiment, in works such as Collage on B-A-C-H, with collage techniques.

Official judgement of Pärt’s music veered between extremes, with certain works being praised while others, for example the Credo of 1968, were banned. This would prove to be the last of his collage pieces and after its composition, Pärt chose to enter the first of several periods of contemplative silence, also using the time to study French and Franco-Flemish choral part music from the 14th to 16th centuries – Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Josquin. At the very beginning of the ’70′s, he wrote a few transitional compositions in the spirit of early European polyphony, the 3rd Symphony of 1971 being an example: “a joyous piece of music” but not yet “the end of my despair and search.”

Pärt turned again to self-imposed silence, during which time he delved back through the medievalism of his 3rd Symphony and through plainchant to the very dawn of musical invention. He re-emerged in 1976 after a transformation so radical as to make his previous music almost unrecognisable as that of same composer. The technique he invented, or discovered, and to which he has remained loyal, practically without exception, he calls tintinnabuli (from the Latin, little bells), which he describes thus: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

The basic guiding principle behind tintinnabulation of composing two simultaneous voices as one line – one voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad – made its first public appearance in the short piano piece, Für Alina. While typically in tintinnabuli the melodic voice is based on an abstract procedure or derived from text, here the melody is freely composed, but with the two voices irrevocably joined according to the tintinnabuli principle. The right hand plays notes from the scale of B minor, while the left hand plays notes from the B minor triad. There is only one exception, marked by a single flower drawn in the score, where the left hand plays a new note – a C sharp.

Having found his voice, there was a subsequent rush of new works and three of the 1977 pieces (Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa) are still amongst his most highly regarded. As Pärt’s music began to be performed in the west and he continued to struggle against Soviet officialdom, his frustration ultimately forced him, his wife Nora and their two sons, to emigrate in 1980. They never made it to their intended destination of Israel but, with the assistance of his publisher in the West, settled firstly in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship. One year later, with a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange, he moved to West Berlin where he still lives.

Since leaving Estonia, Pärt has concentrated on setting religious texts for various forces. Large scale works include St. John Passion (1982), Te Deum (1984-86, rev. 1993) and Litany (1994). Works for SATB choir such as Magnificat (1989) and The Beatitudes (1990) have proved popular with choirs around the world and there is a growing ouvre of works for string orchestra and various chamber ensembles; numerous versions of Fratres (1976-date), Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977/80), Festina Lente (1988) and Siloun’s Song (1991). Among his champions in the West have been Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records who released the first recordings of Pärt’s music outside the Soviet bloc, Paul Hillier’s Hilliard Ensemble (and laterly Theatre of Voices) who have premiered several of the vocal works and Neeme Järvi, a long time collaborator of Pärt who conducted the premiere of Credo in Tallinn in 1968 and has, as well as recording the tintinnabuli pieces, introduced through performances and recordings, Pärt’s earlier compositions.

Pärt’s achievements were honoured in his 61st year by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

For an in-depth study of Pärt’s music, refer to Paul Hillier’s book “Arvo Pärt” in the Oxford University Press “Oxford Studies of Composers” series (published May 1997).

Copyright © Doug Maskew, 1997.

Will you Band Together?

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 14, 2008

Foster Care Statistics

Over 513,000 American children are in foster care, taken away when their families are in crisis and can’t take care of them. But there aren’t enough foster families to take them in. There isn’t enough money to provide them the things every child needs. There aren’t enough people to help them, mentor them, or to simply cheer them up and give them hope for the future.

If nothing changes… by the year 2020:

> Nearly 14 million reported cases of child abuse and neglect will be confirmed;

> 22,500 children will die of abuse or neglect, most before their fifth birthday;

> More than 9,000,000 children will spend some time in foster care

> More than 300,000 children will age out of our foster care system, some in poor health and many unprepared for success in higher education, technical college or the workforce; and,

> 99,000 former foster youth, who aged out of the system, will experience homelessness.

What can YOU do?

Visit this website and take 5 minutes to write your congressmen/women and encourage them to pass the Adoption Incentive Program–a program that has helped thousands of young adults become adopted. If you click the link, all you have to do is fill out a brief form (the letter is already written, you simply add your name) and click send.  These people have put together an excellent website and have made it extremely easy for people like you and me to get involved.  Will you take five minutes to help this worthy cause?

Part III: The Prayers of the De Primo Principio, an Anselmian Non-repetition or What?

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 10, 2008

[Part I, Part II]
Next I turn briefly to Prentice’s claim regarding the similarity of purpose in the Proslogion and the De primo principio.  Here Prentice states that both works have more or less the same goal, but the way they attempt to accomplish those goals are somewhat different.  Both works aim to articulate a clear, tightly knit, valid argument that would establish by reason alone God’s existence (and nature), and which would then serve as a basis for further proofs of God’s attributes.[1] Unlike Anselm’s, Scotus’s argument, however, is not an a priori proof, or more specifically, what Wolter calls a demonstration propter quid. Rather, Scotus moves in an a posteriori fashion; yet, his argument, which Wolter calls a quia demonstration, does not lose any of its demonstrative force.  An additional difference between the two works has to do with the scope of what each proposes to accomplish.  That is, Anselm’s purpose includes an attempt to “establish whatever we believe about the divine substance, whereas Scotus restricts himself to establishing only those attributes which can be discovered by human reason alone.”[2] Because Anselm and Scotus begin with differing views as to the relation between faith and reason, the former allowing a more blended view and the latter holding a sharp distinction between the two, it is not surprising that the scope of Scotus’s purpose is much more limited than of Anselm’s.  Scotus, in other words, self-consciously pursues a project that is “purely” philosophical from start to finish.  Consequently, Scotus makes every effort to construct arguments whose premises are not taken directly from divine revelation.[3] In addition, Prentice highlights the fact that Anselm held a theory of divine illumination, whereas Scotus had offered a strong critique of such theories, particularly divein illumination as expressed by Henry of Ghent.  With these differences in mind, Prentice suggests that Scotus sees himself as carrying out a project similar in purpose with Anselm; yet, because of Scotus’s philosophical context as a “late Aristotelian scholastic” he endeavors to “achieve the high ideal” proposed by Anselm but “by human keeping to human reason alone and without the aid of illuminationism.”[4] In short, the Proslogion serves as a kind of “general model” for the De primo, but the model is adapted to fit Scotus’s desire to present “‘purer’ philosophical conclusions, with the aid of a more highly developed philosophical knowledge and technique.”[5]


[1] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” pp. 86-87.  As Prentice notes, Anselm’s “single argument is found in his famous ‘ratio’.  On the basis of the concept of ‘that than which a great cannot be conceived’, he first shows the existence of God.  Then, basing himself on the ‘ratio’, he proceeds to describe the nature of God.  God, he says, is a necessary being, the self-sufficient origin of all things, and in short is everything which it is better to be than not to be” (p. 87).  Scotus’s purpose is similar, as “[h]e intends to give a compendium of natural knowledge of God which would include a proof for the existence of God and the deduction of the divine attributes” (p. 87). Perhaps one might say that the notion of essential order is the single “ratio,” which, as Prentice claims, serves as the “means for unification” of Scotus’s proof (p. 87).   There are, however, certain divine attributes that Scotus believes (contra Anselm) cannot be demonstrated by natural reason alone (e.g., God’s omnipotence and mercy).

[2] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 89.

[3] As Prentice explains, “[b]oth authors begin with a definition of God provided by the faith.  St. Anselm uses the definition:  ‘that than which a greater cannot be conceived’, which he says he accepts from the faith (cf. Pros. Ch. 2, also Response to Gaunilon ch. 1).  Scotus, in turn, starts with the definition:  ‘I am who am’ as revealed by God to Moses.  With St. Anselm, however, the definition is assumed as a systematic presupposition, whereas, with Scotus, the definition is assumed only on the psychological level and does not enter the system intrinsically.  Thus St. Anselm may use faith (and possibly also illuminationism) not only as a stimulus but also as a premise, with the result that he can speak, e.g., of the justice and mercy of God, of the Holy Trinity and of the blessed.  But since Scotus retains this definition only on the psychological level, he cannot allow faith to enter his system as a premise, and accordingly there will be divine attributes accessible to St. Anselm which are not accessible to him” (“The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 89).

[4] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 89.

[5] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 89.

Part II: The Prayers of the De Primo Principio, an Anselmian Non-repetition or What?

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 1, 2008

We now turn to the distinctives of the De primo. As was the case with the Monologion and the Proslogion, the De primo may also be characterized as discursive, meditative, and reverent.  However, the discursive quality of the work is perhaps the dominant of the three, as we find long chains of intricately woven arguments making up the bulk of the work (quantitatively speaking).[1] In contrast, the meditative feel of the De primo is significantly less in comparison with the consistently meditative tone of the Proslogion.  The De primo, of course, contains several prayers; yet, the overall effect of the prayers, which make up only about four percent of the text, is quite different than what we encounter in Anselm’s text.[2] This is not to diminish the quality of the prayers in the De primo, nor to deny that it retains a meditative dimension.  It is, nonetheless, to suggest that the prayers in Scotus’s text do not flow as naturally as those in the Proslogion.  The De primo prayer content, in fact, gives the impression of something extra interjected to frame a work that could stand on its own apart from the added content.[3] Describing the similarities and differences of the two texts, Prentice writes,

He [Scotus] makes conscious efforts to reintroduce religious reflection into the argumentation by the interspersion of prayers at regular intervals.  It is as though he stops in his speculations and re-orients himself towards God by establishing at these intervals an immediate contact with the Divinity Whose Nature he is investigating.  The net result is that, though the actual text is nowhere near as prayerful as that of St. Anselm, the work as a whole carries upon it the stamp of meditation.[4]

Just as Prentice somewhat reluctantly classifies the De primo as exhibiting meditative and reverent aspects, he is likewise hesitant to categorize the work under the literary genre of “direct address to God.”[5] In the end, in spite of the small percentage of prayers in the De primo as compared to the Proslogion, Prentice accepts the former as exhibiting an “address” form.  As he explains, the prayers divide more or less into two classes, (1) “initiating and concluding prayers,” and (2) “re-orientation prayers.”[6] The first class of prayers set the tone of each chapter and serves as a reminder to the reader, even if with a somewhat abrupt feel, of the “address” quality of the work as a whole.[7] The second class of prayers, the “re-orientation prayers,” appear in the fourth chapter and are needed to reinforce the “address” character of the work as a whole, as the chapter contains paragraph after paragraph of discursive argument chains devoid of any overtly meditative or prayerful content.  For example, after the opening prayer of chapter four at paragraph 4.2, it is not until we reach paragraph 4.46 (forty-four paragraphs later) that we encounter any prayer content whatsoever.[8]

The prayer content stretching from 4.48-4.86 is particularly important because in his rather lengthy address to God, Scotus enumerates certain attributes of God known by (unaided) reason and others held by faith-that is, those truths about God’s nature attainable only through divine revelation.[9] For example, at paragraph 4.84 Scotus states that by natural reason one can come to know that God is: the “first efficient cause,” “the ultimate end,” “supreme in perfection,” uncaused, a se, a necessary being, eternal, one who lives a “most noble life” because he is “understanding and volition,” “happy” because He possesses Himself, knows everything that can be known in a single act, infinite power, infinite, and simple.[10] What Scotus says here is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it does give us an idea of the things he believed could be demonstrated as knowable about God apart from divine revelation.  See also paragraph 4.85, where Scotus enumerates other attributes of God knowable by natural reason.[11] With the prayer content of 4.84, Scotus draws our attention back to the his opening prayers (paragraph 1.2) where he asked God to grant him the ability to “investigate how much our natural reason can learn about that true being which you are.”[12]

Then at paragraph 4.86, Scotus gives his list of God’s attributes that are not knowable by natural reason but are those Catholics hold by faith on the basis of divine revelation.

Besides the aforesaid points which the philosophers have affirmed of you, Catholics often praise you as omnipotent, immense, omnipresent, just yet merciful, provident of all creatures but looking after intellectual ones in a special way, but these matters are deferred to the next tract.  In this first treatise I have tried to show how the metaphysical attributes affirmed of you can be inferred in some way by natural reason.  In the tract which follows, those shall be set forth that are the subject of belief, wherein reason is held captive-yet to Catholics, the latter are the more certain since they rest firmly upon your own most solid truth and not upon our intellect which is blind and weak in many things.[13] (p. 146).

In addition to his list of God’s attributes known only via revelation, we have Scotus’s explicit statement (or at least what is taken to be a claim made by Scotus) that the De primo is part one of a two part treatise.  This first treatise, the De primo, contains proofs of God’s “metaphysical attributes” which “can be inferred in some way by natural reason,”[14] whereas the content of the second treatise is said to be those divine attributes Catholics hold by faith.


[1] This makes sense in light of what Prentice brings to attention at the beginning of his article.  “The whole of the first question of the first part of the second distinction of Book I of the Ordinatio (except for the arguments ‘pro’ and ‘contra’ and for the ‘ad argumenta’ and the ‘opinio propria’) exists in the De primo principio, while the two other questions of the same Book I, namely, the first part of distinction two [*], are found totally as regards their substance” (p. 77).  Prentice has a footnote (2) where I have inserted the *, which reads, “[b]y a slight in printing transposition in the introduction, the text reads d. 3, q. 2 instead of d. 2, q. 3.”

[2] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 84.

[3] See note 11 for a possible additional explanation substantiating my claim.

[4] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 83.

[5] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 84.

[6] Prentice, “The ‘De Primo Principio’ of John Duns Scotus as a Thirteenth Century ‘Proslogion,’” p. 84.  Prayers of the first class are found at paragraphs 1.1, 1.2, 2.2, 2.8, 3.2, 3.63, 4.2, 4.94 and typically come at the beginning and end of the chapters depending upon the length of the chapter.  The shorter chapters often omit closing prayers.  Prayers of the second class, in contrast, are found in two large sections in the final chapter at paragraphs 4.46-4.48 and 4.84-4.86.  These prayers are significantly longer in length and are needed to re-orient and remind the reader of the meditative dimension of the text, as over forty paragraphs of argumentation have passed since the opening prayer at 4.2.

[7] An example of the first class of prayers comes at 3.2 where we read, “O Lord, our God, you have proclaimed yourself to be the first and last.  Teach your servant to show by reason what he holds with faith most certain, that you are the most eminent, the first efficient cause and the last end” (John Duns Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle, ed., Allan B. Wolter O.F.M. (Chicago:  Franciscan Herald Press, 1966), p. 42.   [N.b. A Treatise on God as First Principle is the English translation for De Primo Principio].

[8] At 4.46, Scotus suddenly breaks into prayer, proclaiming, “Oh the depths of the riches of your wisdom and of your knowledge, O God, by which you comprehend everything that can be known!  Could you not enable my puny intellect to infer (Ninth conclusion) that you are infinite and incomprehensible by what is finite?” (Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principlep. 102).  Scotus’s prayer continues through paragraph 4.48.

[9] For example, at paragraph 4.84 Scotus states that by natural reason one can come to know that God is: the “first efficient cause,” “the ultimate end,” “supreme in perfection,” uncaused, a se, a necessary being, eternal, one who lives a “most noble life” because he is “understanding and volition,” happy because He possesses Himself, knows everything that can be known in a single act, infinite power, infinite, and simple (A Treatise on God as First Principle, pp. 142, 144).  This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it does give us an idea of what Scotus believed could be known about God apart from divine revelation.  At paragraph 4.85, Scotus enumerates other attributes of God knowable by natural reason (cf. pp. 144, 146).

[10] A Treatise on God as First Principle, pp. 142, 144.

[11] A Treatise on God as First Principle, pp. 144, 146.

[12] Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle, p. 2.

[13] Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle, p. 146.

[14] “In hoc quipped tractatu primo tentavi videre qualiter metaphysica de te dicta ratione naturali aliqualiter concludantur” (A Treatise on God as First Principle, p. 146 [4.84]).