Aquinas Considered

We promised at the chapter's outset that we would suggest why, in fact, Avicenna's 'essentialist' language is better suited to his purposes than Aquinas' more overtly 'existentialist' approach which, after all, does prima facie also seem to engender a sense of 'self as effect' in focusing our attention, as it does, on the dependence of all existents directly upon God! In fact, it is Avicenna's failure to have existents rely upon God directly for their existence (being said in his system to rely, as it were, upon the cosmic causal intermediaries for their existence), that is itself often invoked as an additional way in which Avicenna's system is faulty and inferior to Aquinas' own 'direct' existential analysis.21 As such, it looks like Aquinas' ontological system is not only as capable as Avicenna's of engendering a sense of 'self as effect,' but that, in its 'direct' crediting of God—and not cosmic intermediaries—for Socrates' existence, it is more favorable from both the point of view of religious sensibilities as well as ontological parsimony!

Let me suggest, then, two ways in which, in the end, Avicenna's system is better suited to his needs than Aquinas'; as we will see, both reasons arise from taking seriously the importance of Imagination in Avicenna's view of Return:

1. Where the goal is to enliven the imagination to the realization of 'self as effect,' that ontology which employs images capable of more extensively reiterating the theme of 'analysandum as effect' will be more successful in this regard; for, as in all meditative practices designed to affect the soul, repetition is key. As such, Aquinas' ontological account of Socrates' existence which treats God and Socrates as the only relevant relata will pale in its ability to impress the idea of 'self as effect' upon the analyst's soul when compared with that ontological analysis which reflects on Socrates' existence in its relation not only to Active Intellect, but in its relation to the many Intellects which precede that Intellect. Avicenna's ontological analysis, then, affords a reiterative enforcement of 'analysandum as effect,' and hence better engenders an experience of 'self as effect' on the analyst's part.

2. Leaving aside the issue of reiteration, Aquinas' analysis, in its directly invoking God as cause of Socrates' existence, fails to offer much 'food for thought,' if you will, to the Imagination. For, God Himself—being invoked as one of the two relevant relata— is essentially indescribable, and—while even coming to know of Him via purely intellectual means is a tricky matter—He is certainly not accessible to the Imagination. And while one might suggest the same is true of the Active Intellect—or of any nonmaterial substance, for that matter—at least there is some truth which is revealed in imagining the Intellects in even grossly material ways, for, these beings, though not really material, at least share an essential contingency with those material existents in whose images we imagine them. Encouraging the imagining of God, though, is more problematic since, in this case, we are not only dealing with an immaterial entity, but, we are dealing with the one immaterial entity whose essence is entirely non-contingent, and which is, in effect, Necessary Existence itself. Since God alone lacks, in this way, any similarity to material existents, to 'imagine' God becomes far more problematic than to imagine the immaterial cosmological hierarchy of causal intermediaries.

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