Augustinian intellectualism

In the meantime, it is safe to say that as fourteenth- and fifteenth-century theologians read him, Thomas was a radical 'intellectualist'. This 'intellectualism', however, does not entail anything much which could be derived from any understanding of the word 'intellect' current today, and certainly has little to do with what is exclusively confined to academics. For us, as for the medieval 'affectivist', 'intellect' is a discursive power. It is what we use in calculations, whether of a theoretical kind, such as in numerical, logical or empirical reasoning, or of a practical kind, such as in the devising of the means to the ends of action. By contrast, for Thomas, intellectus has a twofold meaning, one of which is general, and is inclusive of all human rational powers together with all that those rational powers depend upon for their exercise; but the other is more narrowly and specifically conceived, as that 'higher' than rational power itself on which our rational powers depend. In this narrower sense, intellectus is a mental activity distinct from our 'ratiocination'; it is precisely not the discursive activity of arguing on what grounds something might be true, or of calculating how something might be got, but is rather the non-discursive act of seeing a truth as such or the desirability of some good. 'Reasoning' is an activity of step-by-step argument to a truth; 'intellectual' seeing is a form of contemplative rest in a truth, and is a higher form of knowing than any achieved by reasoning, for it is typically exercised in the knowledge of those truths on which any power of reasoning itself depends, whether theoretical or practical.

7 Nicholas Lash, A Matter of Hope: A Theologian's Reflections on the Thought of Karl Marx, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, p. 144.

8 See chapters 9, 10 and 11 below.

Of course, if it would be misleading to translate Thomas's intellectus by our 'intellect', it would be equally wrong to assume a uniformity of terminology from one time to another within the Middle Ages, and between one author and another even within the same period. This is not the place to account for all the variations and nuances of meaning of the Latin intellectus across times and authorities, but it is worthwhile offering some elements of clarification in a very confused matter of technical vocabulary. A starting point for such discussion is inevitably found in Augustine, who, in a famous passage in Confessions, argued that the power of the mind by which it exercises its native capacity to judge of mutable and contingent things as to good, better and best, cannot itself share that character of mutability and contingency; that the senses of our bodies, the inner power of 'imagination' and paradoxically even 'reason' itself, 'to which whatever is received from the bodily senses is referred for judgment', are themselves too fraught with changeability to ground that capacity to judge of changeable things - so to say, you cannot measure length with an elastic tape. 'Wondering therefore what was the source of my judgment when I did thus judge', Augustine concluded that though 'reason' is what we judge with, it does and can do so not by means of its own autonomous light but by means of the 'unchangeable and true eternity of truth above my changing mind'. Thus the mind (reason) judges by means of a light which is both in it and not of it.9 Now clearly, that appropriation of the divine light of truth by which changeable, contingent reason judges of the changeable, contingent world cannot itself be the work of reason; and one of the terms which Augustine used to describe that locus of the mind in which the 'eternal light of truth' is situated is intellectus. But only one of them. For Augustine sometimes casts this distinction between intel-lectus and ratio in the different terms of the distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' reason.10 And in this terminological laxity he is followed by many another medieval authority: typically, for example, by William of St Thierry11 in the twelfth century, but also by Denys the Carthusian in the fifteenth, who, in his polemical reaction against the predominant affectivisms of his contemporaries, advocates a return to that classical tradition of 'intellectualism' of the twelfth-century Victorines on whom Thomas himself draws. Denys clarifies his own terminology in terms which succinctly paraphrase also that broad twelfth-century consensus to which he is so indebted:

9 Augustine, Confessiones 7.17.23, ed. L. Verheijen, CCSL 50, Turnout: Brepols, 1981.

10 Augustine, De Trinitate xil, 1, 2.

11 See, for example, Meditations 3.10.10, in The Works of William of St Thierry: On Contemplating God, Prayer, Meditations, trans. Sr Penelope CSMV, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977, p. 107.

one and the same power is called reason in so far as it is discursive; intellect in so far as it knows intuitively by a simple glance; intelligence in so far as it contemplates things divine and the supremely exalted Godhead.12

But if Denys's terminology is thus identifiably Augustinian, his source for his conception of 'intellect' is distinctly that of the pseudo-Denys. The human mind is characterised principally by its middle-ranking place within the hierarchy of beings, extending from the very highest form of angelic life, that of the seraphim, down to the very lowest forms of matter. Each level of hierarchy is at once differentiated from every other but also related by complex relations of inclusion and overlap. The angelic mind is both higher than and differentiated from the human in that whereas the angelic mind is purely intellectual and intuitive, the human mind is characteristically rational and discursive. Conversely, the human mind, in its highest part, overlaps with the angelic mind and thus possesses some purely intellectual potential: 'according to the divine Denys, the lowest level of a higher order has a certain measure of "fit" with the highest level of the [next] lower order'.13

And so, in the outflow of beings from the first principle there is a certain 'linkage', as of a chain, and an order. Since, therefore, the human soul is made 'in the shadow of intelligence', as Isaac says in his book of Definitions, that is, in the order of things immediately after the angels, it follows that some element remains in the [human] soul of the perfection and manner of understanding proper to the angelic mind.14

And concerning this ground which the human mind shares in common with the angelic, Denys is prepared to say just what Augustine says about it, namely that it is in that highest part that the human mind knows, non-discursively, the eternal truths the knowledge of which is the necessary precondition of its rational activities. This 'spark of the soul', he says, 'is signified by the eagle, for it is the highest [part of the] soul . . . and soars above the rational power, at any rate in so far as by 'rational power' is meant that which functions by discursive reasoning'.15

12 'Nempe eadem vis dicitur ratio, in quantum est discursiva; intellectus, in quantum est simplici apprehensione intuitiva; intelligentia quoque in quantum est divinorum ac superaltissimae Deitatis contemplativa.' De contemplatione 1.5. 140B.

13 Pseudo-Denys, Divine Names 7, 868C (Complete Works, p. 107).

14 'Secundum divinum Dionysium, infimum superioris ordinis cum supremo ordinis infe-rioris aliquam habet convenientiam. In processu equidem entium a primo principio est concatenatio quaedam et ordo. Quoniam ergo anima rationalis in umbra intelligentiae facta est, secundum Isaac in libro Definitionum, utpote in ordine rerum immediate post angelum; constat quod aliquid de perfectione et modo intelligendi mentis angelicae in anima perseveret.' De contemplatione 1.6, Opera Omnia XVI, p. 141B-C.

15 'Unde . . . haec scintilla . . . significatur per aquilam, quoniam est supremum in anima . . . et rationalem virtutem transcendit, videlicet ipsam rationem secundum quod ratio dicitur a ratiocinationis discursu.' De contemplatione 1.6, Opera Omnia XVI, p. 141A'-B'.

However great the differences of source or of vocabulary may be, there is common ground identifiable in high medieval thought in a series of metaphors and in a general distinction. The metaphors serve to describe that place in the soul where, as one might put it, the human mind 'lives beyond its own powers' - for that is the essential notion shared by Augus-tinian and Dionysian theologies, that even to be the human thing that it is, the human mind must be more than human. Augustine himself spoke of the acies mentis, the soul's 'cutting edge',16 and in other places of the scintilla rationis,11 the 'spark of reason', and medieval authors generally took up the Augustinian metaphors, speaking variously of the acies intellectus or of the apex intellectus or mentis and sometimes of the scintilla synderesis;18 and what all these metaphors denote is the presence within the human mind of a source of its knowing which exceeds the human, the point in the soul where it overlaps with that which is above it. In short, the common opinion sustained by all these metaphors is that to be a human and to know as a human require our being more than human, both as to being and as to knowledge.

That said, it remains the case that to 'know' in the way human beings distinctively do is to exercise 'reason' - and by that word is meant the specifically human discursive power of stage-by-stage progression from evidence to conclusion, from ends to the means required to achieve them, a power which places us above the sensate animal world and below the purely 'intellectual' world of the angels. We could say, somewhat epigram-matically (and in any case as capturing best the thought rather of Thomas than of the generality of medieval authorities), that 'intellect' plus a body equals reason: for discursive rationality is what intellect is when embodied; rationality is the sort of intellectual power which can be exercised by a being whose knowledge is dispersed around and organised in the multitudinousness of the body's sensory inputs. Nonetheless, though the human mind is essentially rational, it could not be rational if it were not also, in part, functionally intellectual.19 And that, the intellectual power, where the divine light of truth resides, is the highest part of the soul, the apex mentis where, in some sort, the soul meets with God in its - and in God's - deepest intimacy.

16 See e.g. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmis 134.6, Patrologia Latina XXXVII, p. 1742.

17 Augustine, De Civitate Dei 22.24.2, PL XLI, p. 789.

18 The term synderesis is of obscure origin: it seems to have been invented by Jerome (Home-lia in Hezechielem 1.6, Patrologia Latina XXV, p. 22) out of a corruption of the Greek suneidesis ('conscience') and was taken by Thomas to refer to the mind's immediate apprehension of fundamental moral truths; see ST 1a q79 a12 corp.

19 Thomas denies, however, that 'intellect' and 'reason' are distinct powers; they denote different and complementary exercises of the same power, named intellectus by synechdoche.

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