Theses on Aquinas and Butler

The account lends support to a non-standard but textually compelling series of observations about Aquinas's use of natural law that distinguish it sharply from many modern uses.

In the Romans commentary, human beings cannot expect to reach correct conclusions about natural law under conditions of injustice - so that Aquinas's account unexpectedly allows different uses by those differing on what justice and gratitude entail. Although there is no budging Aquinas from his conclusion about the illicitness of homosexual acts, in his Romans commentary the account depends upon two premises that modern readers, whether they agree with his conclusions or not, are unlikely to share: homosexual activity, before it is a sin, is a punishment for prior social injustice; and as such it should occur among Gentile idolaters, but not among Jews - or Christians.

Thus natural-law thinking in Aquinas is much less "essentialist" than its modern successors, for a number of reasons: recognizing the natural moral law depends upon habits of virtue, that is, in postmodern parlance, upon a performance. Indeed, insofar as human beings know natural law, they not only perform, but participate in a performance of God's: natural law is the this-worldly performance of God's prudence, God's prudence in act. As we participate in God's prudence, natural law is no independent, totalizing source of knowledge, but part of a changing mix. The natures in question are defined not Platonically as essences off in some ideal space, but Aristotelianly as internal principles of change. They differ from modern essences then in two further crucial ways. They are internal, not external. They express what is our ownmost; they do not constrain but empower us. And they are principles of change, not static but dynamic through and through. Thus we know them not by introspection, not directly, but indirectly, by observing ourselves (ST I.87). That is, we know them from our performance. They are, in other words, surmises or extrapolations or inferences or generalizations from performance. "What one must characterize theologically as a piece of the doctrine of God or of creation appears philosophically as transcendental reflection" (Pesch 1988: 294-5). In the order of knowing, performance comes first. Properly understood, therefore, Aristotelian natures cannot oppress in the way that Platonic essences can. To be sure, anything fallen can oppress. But not everything can oppress in the same way.

For those and similar reasons, Aquinas's realism is not a Platonic essentialism, but learns enough from Aristotle to escape much of Butler's critique. I assert the theologian's license to sum up in theses.

1 Form is dynamic, not static.

2 Nature is "an inner principle of change," that is, an abbreviation of performance (Lear 1988:15-25).

3 The human being knows herself only by observing her own activity (ST I.87), or performance.

4 Knowing takes place over time, in language, and in community (by reference to justice,14 to the maiores in fide (ST II-II.5.3 ad 2, II-II.5.4), per ecclesia, per longum tempum, et cum admixtione multorum errorum (ST I.1.1)).

5 All language rests on analogy, or "appropriate equivocations" (Preller 1967: 243), so that it cannot foreclose further demands for language.

6 God is unimpeded activity, or boundary-crossing performance.

7 Nature is defined by form, matter, and privation,15 or construction, that which calls for more language, and the constitutive other.

8 Form ("construction") defines both matter and language. It applies "indifferently to minds and things" (Irwin 1988: 7).

9 First principles are never of the Cartesian, foundational sort. They always appear in the context of an explanation. For that reason Thomas does not only admit, but says explicitly that they are "positioned," that is, they occupy a positio.16

10 Matter requires more language, and language materializes bodies - both through form, which is the working out of a dynamic (dynamis, power) indifferently in words and things.

11 The attention to habit is attention to the persistence or iterability of a performance.

12 Iterability turns the spatial into the temporal.

13 The truth of bodies is that bodies matter, that is, they signify, and in so doing they demand and call forth language; the truth of language is that language matters; it calls forth and materializes bodies. Or, in Aristotelian terms, metaphysics considers that which is as intelligibilia, that is, for humans, as linguistically constructed. But that which is does not come before intelligibility; rather, intelligibility and that which is both arise, equiprimordially, from form, or construction. So words bring bodies into the street, and bodies in the street call for new words. Aquinas and Butler agree that sexuality is all tied up with language, and language is all tied up with sexuality.

That brings us to the second part of this account, one in which language and sexuality come together. Is it the case that animals do not lie, and do not lie with members of the same sex, for a similar reason?

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