By: Jay Dyer
Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Dionysius, Augustine, Basil, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, John Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and many others all profess a doctrine of divine exemplarism. This is Plato's forms or universals or logoi as located in the divine mind or essence (depending on whether it's Eastern or Western). The problem will be, however, whether this can work as an epistemic foundation in Thomism.
It should go without saying that both Aristotle and Aquinas' epistemology is basically an empirical method. A certain Thomist fussed to me about this, since "epistemology" and "empiricism" are anachronisms. As if we cannot use modern terms that accurately describe an ancient belief or system. No one says we cannot say "Post-Apostolic theology" because that term wasn't used in the Post-Apostolic era. But it's quite simple to show Aristotle and Thomas' method is empirical.
Aristotle says in De Anima 12:8:
"Since according to common agreement there is nothing outside and separate in existence from sensible spatial magnitudes, the objects of thought are in the sensible forms, viz. both the abstract objects and all the states and affections of sensible things. Hence (1) no one can learn or understand anything in the absence of sense, and (when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images are like sensuous contents except in that they contain no matter. "
Aquinas writes in De Veritate, Article III:
"19. Nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in sense. But in God there is no sensitive cognition, because this is material. Therefore, He does not know created things, since they were not previously in His sense.
19. That axiom is to be understood as applying only to our intellect, which receives its knowledge from things. For a thing is led by gradual steps from its own material conditions to the immateriality of the intellect through the mediation of the immateriality of sense. Consequently, whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses. This, however, does not take place in the divine intellect.”
And in the Summa Theologica Ia Q101, Art. 1:
“On the contrary, The human soul is naturally “like a blank tablet on which nothing is written,” as the Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 4). But the nature of the soul is the same now as it would have been in the state of innocence. Therefore the souls of children would have been without knowledge at birth.”
That’s pretty much an empirical method. Note that I didn’t say he was an empiricist. I said this is a basically empirical method. Going further, Thomas says that the way humans have knowledge is the active intellect abstracting the universal from the phantasm in our mind, created by the sensuous faculties. For Aquinas, even incorporeal objects, though not from sense, are known by comparison to things of sense. He explains:
“Reply to Objection 3. Incorporeal things, of which there are no phantasms, are known to us by comparison with sensible bodies of which there are phantasms. Thus we understand truth by considering a thing of which we possess the truth; and God, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i), we know as cause, by way of excess and by way of remotion. Other incorporeal substances we know, in the present state of life, only by way of remotion or by some comparison to corporeal things. And, therefore, when we understand something about these things, we need to turn to phantasms of bodies, although there are no phantasms of the things themselves.”
Good so far. And what is the locale of these forms that we abstract from the objects of sense? It is the divine exemplars, that exist in the essence of God. Thomas explains this lucidly in many places:
“And thus we must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. Whence it is written (Psalm 4:6-7), “Many say Who showeth us good things?” which question the Psalmist answers, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,” as though he were to say: By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us.”
“Reply to Objection 1. Although creatures do not attain to a natural likeness to God according to similitude of species, as a man begotten is like to the man begetting, still they do attain to likeness to Him, forasmuch as they represent the divine idea, as a material house is like to the house in the architect’s mind.”
“And therefore we must say that in the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas–i.e. exemplar forms existing in the divine mind (15, 1). And these ideas, though multiplied by their relations to things, in reality are not apart from the divine essence, according as the likeness to that essence can be shared diversely by different things. In this manner therefore God Himself is the first exemplar of all things. Moreover, in things created one may be called the exemplar of another by the reason of its likeness thereto, either in species, or by the analogy of some kind of imitation.”
“On the contrary, Augustine says (Confess. xii, 25): “If we both see that what you say is true, and if we both see that what I say is true, where do we see this, I pray? Neither do I see it in you, nor do you see it in me: but we both see it in the unchangeable truth which is above our minds.” Now the unchangeable truth is contained in the eternal types. Therefore the intellectual soul knows all true things in the eternal types.”
Even incorporeal things are understood by us abstracting from the phantasm. This is done by sensible objects affecting our intellect, which abstracts from the phantasm. All human knowledge then, whether of material things or of intellectual things, is based on the ideas or archetypes in the divine mind. The problem is that the created light of the human intellect never accesses these ideas because they are “in the divine essence” as Thomas says in many places.
As he said above:
And thus we must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. Whence it is written (Psalm 4:6-7), “Many say Who showeth us good things?” which question the Psalmist answers, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,” as though he were to say: By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us.”
It is incontestable that Thomas believes that no one sees God in this life (other than a few saints caught in rapture). Since the beatific vision is something reserved for the eschaton alone, the question arises how anyone’s mind accesses the forms. The created light of your intellect is not the light of the divine Essence. It’s a created light. And even if you want to hold that it does actually see all things in God, it doesn’t do it in this life.
We can state the problem this way:
1. All human knowledge is based on universals or forms.
2. These forms are unified in God – they subsist in His essence.
However, Thomas’ view of simplicity appears to mean:
3. The human mind never touches or accesses these in this life.
If we could question Aquinas on this, it ironically seems that if we asked him how he knows that divine exemplarism is true, it looks like he would have to say Divine Revelation. But exemplarism, it turns out, is also the basis of purely natural knowledge. But this means natural knowledge has its foundation in revelation. This is not what Thomists want to say, however.