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Per Caritatem

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Part II: Scotus and the Perfecting of (Natural) Potencies by a (Supernatural) Free Agent

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

March 16, 2008

Turning to the second initial argument [n. 2], we have a basic modus ponens, namely, if the senses do not require supernatural knowledge (in our viator state), then neither does the intellect.  Essentially, we have an appeal to the a minori ad maius principle that if something is true of the lesser, then it will no doubt be true of the greater.  The intellect is greater than sense cognition, and if the latter has no need for supernatural knowledge for its perfection, then surely the intellect, in light of its higher status, requires no supernatural knowledge to achieve its end either.[1]   Scotus then gives his response to this argument at paragraph 93.  In sum, Scotus denies the consequence of the second argument and claims that the a minori ad maius principle does not apply in this case.  As Scotus explains, “superior natures are ordained passively to receive something greater than they can actively produce.  Consequently, their perfection cannot be achieved except by some supernatural agent.  But this is not so with the perfection of less perfect things whose ultimate perfection could fall under the action of inferior agents” (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 93).The third initial argument seems to have in view the Thomistic teaching that the passive intellect must be supernaturally elevated in order to receive the divine essence (though this is not stated explicitly).[2]  First, we have a hypothetical argument, namely, if supernatural knowledge were necessary, it would be because of a disproportion between the faculty and the object.  Consequently, some kind of supplement or addition is required so that the faculty will be proportionate to the object. Then we are given a disjunctive argument followed by a modus tolens argument. That is, this additional factor required is either natural or supernatural.  If the supplement were merely natural, then all we have is a natural addition to the (natural) faculty ; thus, the disproportion with the object remains.  Hence, the addition must be supernatural.  However, if the supplement is supernatural, then a disproportion occurs between the supplement and the intellect.  Thus, in order to remove the disproportion between the supplement and the intellect, we must deny the need for a supernatural supplement.  Ergo, we must affirm that the intellectual faculty is naturally proportionate to the object.  “It is necessary to stop with the first [viz. something natural], and admit that the intellective faculty is proportionate to everything that can be known and in any way in which it can be known” (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 3). 

Scotus then replies to third argument in paragraph 94.  While Scotus maintains with the Aristotlean tradition that the intellect is naturally moved by the intelligible species abstracted from sensible objects by the agent intellect, he also acknowledges that there are some propositions that Christians hold to be true that are “disproportionate the possible intellect, that is to say, the intellect is not equal to being moved [to know them] by what can be known from sense images and the natural light of the agent intellect” (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 94).  Scotus concedes that there is a “something else” required so that the intellect will be proportionate to the object.  This “something else” is a supernatural agent, namely, God, who grants the soul faith and thus makes assent possible.  In other words, in contrast to propositions such as, “the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles,” to which when the terms are properly understood, the natural light of reason assents,  a proposition such as “God is triune” does not compel assent apart from supernatural intervention.  Why? Because to properly grasp (insofar as we as creatures are able) the meaning of the terms “God” and “triune” and to assent to the truth of the proposition, “God is triune,” requires knowledge of the divine essence (as occurs in the beatific vision), which is precisely what we do not have in this life.   However, God, by way of the gift of faith, can and does open up a way for assent to such propositions to occur.  Not only does Scotus claim that a supernatural agent moves the intellect to assent, but he also adds that something in the sense of form does as well-”for there is the assent produced in the intellect, which is a kind of inclination in the intellect towards this object which brings the intellect into proportion with the latter” (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 94).  Next Scotus brings into the discussion the idea of “obediential potency,” which speaks of the creature’s potency with respect to his Creator. As Scotus explains,

I declare that the intellect by its very nature is in obediential potency towards the agent, and thus is sufficiently proportionate to it to the extent that it can be moved by this agent.  Also of itself, the intellect is capable of the act of assent caused by such an agent and this capability is natural.  Hence, it is not necessary that it be proportioned by something in order to receive this assent (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 94, italics added).  

Scotus provides a detailed explication of his own position in paragraphs 57-65. (I shall discuss highlights of these paragraphs in the subsequent post).  For now I simply state in passing that Scotus’ answer represents a clear refusal to be confined to an Aristotelian understanding of nature and natural, as he wants to provide a broader context in which natural potencies can be perfected not only by nature (and hence necessity) but freely, by the free agency of a Triune God who is the Creator of nature. 


[1] “If this is true of things that are imperfect, all the more does it hold for things that are perfect.  Consequently, if the inferior faculties lack nothing for their function and the attainment of their end, all the more is this true of the higher faculty” (Ord. prol., p. 1, q. 1, n. 2). [2] According to Thomistic teaching, our passive intellect is incapable of receiving the divine essence.  As a result, we require a supernatural supplement to elevate the intellect so that it is proportionate to the intelligibility of the divine essence and is thus enabled to receive the divine essence in the beatific vision.