American Professor of Philosophy and Catholic Priest
W. Norris Clarke
American Professor of Philosophy and Catholic Priest
Our aim has been to follow the lead of St. Thomas in uncovering the underlying metaphysical and epistemological structures supporting the ability of authentic religious art to give symbolic expression to the Transcendent and our relation to it. The epistemological structure is based on St. Thomas’ distinctive theory of human understanding as a synthesis of sense and intellect, according to which any act of the intellect must first find footing in some image of the senses or the imagination and then use it as a springboard to go beyond the sense world, either to the formal essence of the sensible thing itself or to its cause. The ascent of the mind to know God takes place through a triple process of (1) causal similitude, (2) negation of all imperfections and limits, i.e., negation of exact or univocal similitude, and (3) reaffirmation of the purified perfection together with a projection of it toward infinite fullness, accomplished by a burst into consciousness of the radical unrestricted drive of the human spirit toward the Infinite—a drive that is constitutive of the very nature of finite spirit as such. This élan or excessus of spirit enables it to leap beyond its own level and all finite beings to point obscurely through the very awareness of its own dynamism (the pondus animae meae of St. Augustine) toward the Infinite. The metaphysical underpinnings of this theory of knowledge are (1) the integral union of body and soul to form a single being with a single unified field of consciousness; (2) the radical drive of the spirit (intellect and will) toward the Infinite as ultimate Final Cause; and (3) the doctrine of creation, ex-plained in terms of participation and causal simili-tude, which grounds a bond of analogical similitude not only of all creatures with God but also of all creatures with each other.
t make it automatically a piece of religious art. There must be something within the painting itself which gives expression to the religious dimension. Perhaps the simplest way to define or identify this characteristic, so as to apply to all the religious traditions of mankind, whether they use the name “God” or not for the Ultimate Reality they are in quest of, is to describe it as a thrust toward Transcendence, a reaching beyond the ordinary, all too painfully limited level of our human lives toward a higher, more ulti-mate dimension of reality freed from these limita-tions. In a word, it is the reaching out of the finite toward the Infinite, expressed through finite sensible symbols. I take it that the symbol, in this rich con-text of psychology, art, and religion, may be aptly described as man’s ever unfinished effort to express in form what is beyond all form and expression.1 The challenge—and the genius—of authentic religious art is therefore to succeed somehow in giving effective symbolic expression to this thrust toward Trans-cendence. I am not going to argue here that such authentic and distinctively recognizable religious art exists. The striking examples of it in many religious cultures seem to me sufficient evidence for the fact. My effort here will be focused toward uncovering the hidden metaphysical and epistemological structure behind such art.
As Shelley said, "The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being." Existence is so familiar. It is common to everything, that we just sort of forget about it, and it drops out of sight. To open their eyes again, to recognize the wonder, as Heidegger said, the wonder of all wonders that anything at all exists. To wake people up You have to wake people up to look not just at the fact of existence, but the act of existence. To wake them up to the wonder of existence.
It is impossible to have more than one pure infinite being. Every being in the universe except perhaps one must be finite to distinguish it from all the others. Could every being be finite or limited existence? That’s not going to work because then you do one of the basic Thomistic – a sense to God – that no finite being can be self-sufficient. No finite being can explain why it is this much existence and no more. If it were self-sufficient, it would be the ultimate source of existence, and then it doesn’t make any sense that it would give existence to itself in some limited way. So as soon as it is limited, it means it can’t explain why it exists in this limited way rather than in some other way possible. It would need something to select it out. It couldn’t choose its own limited mode of existence. So the limitation points to the fact that there is something beyond it, and therefore if no finite being can be self-explanatory, you must ultimately get that the only being that is self-sufficient is going to be the infinite plenitude of existence. Anything less points you further. So by working from the finitude of limited existence, everything would have to be limited existence except possibly one.
The metaphysician is never satisfied until he gets to ultimates where mind is quiet. So that’s why when you are going down in depth inside of being, you keep going until you hit the ultimate root, the actual existence of the thing. So when you go out in what is common, you keep going until you reach the limit beyond which there is only non-being. So the search for being takes in the entire realm of reality, whatever is real, and the only thing beyond that, in quotes so to speak, is non-being, so you’ve reached an ultimate there. So it’s that drive of the mind to know. You may ask, well, how do you know you have such a drive of the mind, or is that just peculiar to some people? It may be a matter of temperament to have an explicit awareness of that, but I think everybody has that drive of the mind – the mind towards being is true, it’s knowable, it’s intelligible, and then the will towards being is good.
Metaphysics is trying to understand being reality as a whole. That’s specifically that part to set everything in a vision of the whole. That’s the specific part of metaphysics. Then other branches of philosophy like philosophy of man, philosophy of nature, etc., then take a part of reality, but also situate it in the whole. But metaphysics is precisely looking for the overall framework. The harmony, the vision of the universe as a whole, as a unity in its differences, and with some kind of harmony, the great laws and principles that govern all of being in its unity. Of course, we have to start from the being that we know, our universe, so it is a quest for understanding our universe, but then as it broadens out, the search for understand, it broadens out to take in the whole universe, in fact, in some way all possible universes even. When you get back to the source of all being, if there can be only one, then you have the source of all possible universes, so it starts off with our universe and can broaden out to a much greater.
Act…is always identified with the fully complete, the actually present. Pure act, therefore, is simply a correlative of the immutable, i.e., of pure actualized form, complete in all that is proper to it and incorruptible. It is this immutability, self-sufficiency, and incorruptibility which for Aristotle is the primary characteristic of the “divine” and the perfect. In the notion of act so conceived there is no necessary implication of infinity, at least in the substantial order. In fact, Aristotle has no difficulty in admitting some fifty five of his prime movers, each one pure act or pure form but in virtue of its form distinct from all others. Substantial infinity would simply have no meaning in this Aristotelian universe
In what is the type par excellence of act and potency for Aristotle, namely, the composition of form and matter, he tells us explicitly that the role of form or act is to impose a limit on the formless infinity of matter in itself and thus confer upon it determination and intelligibility…St. Thomas takes over intact this perspective into his own system. But he adds to it another dimension, so to speak, in which the relations are reversed and matter also appears as limiting form. This new dimension, however, can have meaning only within the framework of some kind of participation doctrine, where form itself would be conceived either modo Platonico, as subsisting separately in its own right as a perfect plenitude or, for St. Thomas, a pre-existent idea in the mind of a Creator. There is no room for such a perspective in the universe of Aristotle. He has closed the door to it by his explicit rejection of all ontological logical participation or transcendence of material forms.
Being is not just presence, but active presence,
tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to
A non-acting, non-communicating being is for all
practical purposes equivalent to no being at all. To be real is to make a difference.
Philosophy is the critically reflective, systematically articulated attempt to illumine our human experience in depth and set it in a vision of the whole.
Uncontrolled technology can certainly bring down disaster, perhaps irreparable, as our race. The only protection against it is a growth in man’s spiritual and moral maturity proportionate to his growth in technical skill and power.