Creative Contemplation

The fifth and last book of the Consolation of Philosophy refutes a divine determinism to which the argument of the work as a whole seemed to lead. By a formula about the relation of the subject and object of knowing, Boethius dissolves a necessity which had threatened to deconstruct his Consolation. Lady Philosophy declares: it is not true that all things are known "by the power and nature of the objects known. Totally the contrary, for all which is known is comprehended not according to the power of the thing itself but rather according to the capability of those who know it." (Boethius 1973, 5.4; pp. 40810, lines 72-77:...omnia quae quisque novit exipsorum tantum vi atque natura cognosci aestimat quae sciuntur, quod totum contra est. Omne enim quod cognoscitur non secundum sui vim sed secundum cognoscentium potius comprehenditur facultatem).

This formula by which subjectivity is centralized, and by which the proper differentiation of its forms becomes essential, had a two hundred year history before Boethius (c. 480-525) used it. Its likely source is the commentary of Ammonius (died c. 526) on the De Interpretatione of Aristotle, a book on which Boethius also commented twice. There, Ammonius, like Boethius in his second Commentary and in the Consolation, is attempting to argue against the notion that divine foreknowledge abolishes the contingent.6 By protecting contingency both authors aim to maintain the efficacy of prayer. Ammonius solves the problem by a position which he ascribes to lamblichus (died c. 330): "knowledge is intermediate between the knower and the known, since it is the activity of the knower concerning the known" (Ammonius 1998 9 135.14; p. 98).

Despite ascribing it to lamblichus, Ammonius would also certainly have known the doctrine from his teacher, Proclus (410-85), in whose works it occurs in several contexts.

In common with Ammonius and Boethius, in those contexts where Proclus is treating Providence, the doctrine serves to dissolve a determinism seemingly required by divine knowledge of the future; contingency is saved for the sake of human freedom (E.g. Proclus 1977-1982, 1:61-65 and 2:80-84). The ultimate source for both Ammonius and Proclus may be Porphyry (died c. 303), Sententiae 10, where we are told that everything is in the intellect according to the mode of intellectual substance.7

From Proclus the doctrine is picked up by the Arabic Liber de causis, supposed in the Latin West to be a work of Aristotle until its Proclean origins were understood in the second half of the thirteenth century by William of Moerbeke and, through him, by Thomas Aquinas near the very end of his writing. For Aquinas, the doctrine is hugely important (Henle 1956, 328-333; Aquinas 1996, xxvi). It has for most of his life, the authority of Aristotle, and Aristotle is understood in such a way as to accommodate the teaching. After Aquinas knows its Proclean origins, he continues to use it with the same, if not even greater enthusiasm (See Hankey 1997a, 87-90). In the Liber, its context is the wider question of the knowledge by intelligences of what is above and below them and takes the form of a general assertion that, because it is a substance, every intelligence knows according to the mode of its own substance (Proposition 8 of the Liber and see the translation in Aquinas 1996, 60). The source for the Liber is the Elements of Theology, proposition 173, which proposition 8 of the Liber more or less reproduces (See Proclus 1963, p. 150, line 22-p. 152, line 7).

In the Consolation, "all is understood according to the power of the knower" is an assertion made as the total contrary of an error: the supposition that all knowledge derives only from the nature and power of what is known (Boethius 1973, 5.4; pp. 408-10). Boethius gives no hint here of the source of this error. In Plato and Aristotle, the emphasis is on the object of knowledge which defines and determines the powers of knowing,8 but it is not likely that Boethius would have been criticising either of them. In fact, the poem preceding the second rendition of the formula is explicit that he has the Stoics in mind (Boethius 1973, 5.4; pp. 412-14 and 5.6; p. 422, lines 1-5) and the deterministic destiny which rules their cosmos (Laycock 1999:32-33).

Boethius shifts from the objective to the subjective side in order to prevent confusions between diverse forms of knowing and being. Employed more radically, the doctrine has enormous consequences for the creation of the cosmos, for its structure, and for the activity by which its various intelligences are related. Noting this more radical and positive development requires us to consider also what underlies the doctrine of Boethius and Ammonius, and, indeed, what was before Porphyry, namely, the creativity of contemplation in Plotinus.

In Ennead 3.8.7: "On Nature and Contemplation and the One," Plotinus brings out two contrasting sides of contemplation. Both depend upon differences in the modes of being of the subject and the object of knowledge. The first considers the object as accommodated to a knower below it, the other considers the assimilation of the knower to what is above. Both are productive but we shall attend only to the first kind of productivity.

Plato's Demiurge in the Timaeus creates by looking to the ideas above him.9 In this Ennead Plotinus considers the making which occurs when what is higher and thus more simple is contemplated by a lower and thus less unified being. He writes: "All things come from contemplation and are contemplation, some by sense-perception and some by knowledge or opinion."10 Contemplation of the One is the origin of everything beneath it; but everything else differs from the One. In itself the One neither thinks nor has being. Being is beneath the One and everything exists there by a reflection upon a cause which has a higher mode. In the movement downward from the One, eternal thinking and perceiving literally bring the One into being as Mind and Soul. This model of creation depends upon the difference between the simplicity of what is known and the knower. The higher simplicity of the known prevents its being known as it is in itself; in consequence, contemplating it brings something new into existence. Ultimately this model is a result of the exclusive simplicity of the One.

The other side of Plotinian contemplation is an upward movement, where, to quote Plotinus: "contemplation ascends from nature to soul, and from soul to intellect, and the contemplations become always more intimate and united to the contemplators, and in the soul of the good and wise man the objects known tend to become identical with the knowing subject, [because in intellect] "thinking and being are the same." (Ennead 3.8.8; 3:384, lines 1-8 Armstrong). When this intellectual assimilation of thinking to being (here Plotinus is quoting Parmenides), and of subject to object is considered, we arrive at another way of uniting knower and known, opposed to that articulated by Boethius. This way, which is in Plotinus the life of NOUS, subordinate to the One because it remains with thought's duality of subject and object, is the way taken by Augustine (354-430) and by Anselm (1033-1109). Those like Edward Booth who see in Augustine and his followers a continuation of Aristotle's noetic divinity are not mistaken (Booth 1977-1979; Booth 1985; Booth 1989; Doull 1988, 61; Doull 1997, notes 9, 58 & 62; Hankey 1998c, 44-49; Hankey 1999a, 116). If, as with Aristotle, Augustine and Anselm we take this way where creativity is primarily the conception of a word within the thinker, the highest will have a unity which includes multiplicity.

We return, however, to the first kind of creative contemplation when we consider the pseudo-Dionysius and his heirs. The hierarchical logic and activity of spiritual reality, as described in the Dionysian corpus, would be impossible without the contemplation which creates by a conformity of the higher more simple objects of thought to the different, ever diminishing, levels of spiritual knowing. These gradually diminishing contemplations both constitute the angelic hierarchy and enable the purposes it serves (Hankey 1997a, 74-89). Eriugena was the first successful translator of the pseudo-Dionysius and was also the first of his heirs in the Latin West to develop the ontological consequences of his doctrine in order to construct a complete cosmic system.

Eriugena grasped the crucial point. Creative contemplation in the lamblichan/Proclean tradition with its strong elevation of the One above being, enables the single absolute source to remain unmoved, and even beyond being, and thus both ineffable and unknown in itself, while it is multiplied as it comes into being in the diverse forms of what is other. Diverse forms of being and non-being correspond to diverse forms of knowledge and ignorance. Different perceptions will transform one and the same ultimate object into all the different, hierarchically graduated and interconnected forms of reality. To this Proclean structure, Eriugena added the Christian recentering of the cosmos around humanity understood prominently but not exclusively through Augustine. In the Periphyseon, human apprehension in its diverse modes actually causes the varied forms of being. Ineffable non-being, before all definition, being and multiplicity, comes into definite, varied, and perceptible being by passing dialectically, or "running through,"

intellect, reason, imagination and sense, faculties all contained in the human mens. Human mens, at the middle of what is and of what is not, unites all the created kinds as diverse forms of unity and division. What knows all makes all.11 So, "in the human everything is created" ("in homine...universaliter creatae sunt" Eriugena 1865, 4. 8, PL 774A).

The doctrine that a thing is known according to the mode of the knower is found, then, in the most authoritative Latin, Arabic and Greek sources of mediaeval thought. No Latin mediaeval will follow Eriugena into everything which such a total dialectic between subject and object allows for the construction of reality. But none of the Latin disciples of Dionysius, who endure to the 17th century and beyond, will refuse some at least of its possibilities (Hankey 1998d). However, Eriugena, first, and every Latin after him also encountered the opposed principle for relating the divine and the human associated with the pre-eminent Latin authority, Augustine. The itinerarium shaped by Augustinian subjectivity is clearly displayed in the Proslogion of Anselm.

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