Peter Abelard on God’s Actions (I)

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), working with certain Aristotelian assumptions about metaphysics and logic, makes an argument that God, although omnipotent, cannot do anything other than what He actually does do, and cannot omit doing anything which He actually does omit doing. The reason this is so of God, says Abelard, is because “If we affirm that he can do more or fewer things or stop doing what he is doing, clearly we will greatly detract from his supreme goodness.”:”(From section III of Abelard’s Theologia Scolarium, as translated in Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy: Selected Readings Presenting the Interactive Discourses Among the Major Figures, second edition, ed., Richard N. Bosley and Martin M. Tweedale [Broadview Press, 2006], pg. 18.)”:

If we affirm this “clearly we will greatly detract from his supreme goodness.” Clearly? The editors note that Abelard is here working with an ancient Greek philosophical assumption that what actually exists or happens exhausts the realm of what can possibly exist or happen – such that whatever exists or happens exists or happens necessarily. This is an assumption about necessity and contigency that Abelard shares with Muslim interpreters of Aristotle such as Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (ca. 1126-1198). Taken as a matter of logical analysis proceeding from certain assumptions, Abelard’s argument makes a great deal of sense. Consider the following statements from his pen:

“[W]hat is good to do cannot be good to omit, since the only contrary of good is bad. Neither can there be a valid reason why the same thing ought to be done and omitted.”:”(Ibid.)”:

“…if [God] omits what is good for him to do and draws back from some things which should be done, who would not infer that he is sort of envious or hostile?”:”(Ibid.)”:

“If only that which [God] does is good for him to do, clearly he who can only do what is good for him to do can only do what he does do.”:”(Ibid., pg. 19.)”:

“…nor can he, who is the height of reason, will or do anything which runs against what reason demands.”:”(Ibid.)”:

In good logical fashion, Abelard then runs through some counter-arguments to his position, which, he admits, is fairly controversial in his day, not least because it contradicts “the pronouncements of a number of saints and a little bit with reason as well.”:”(Ibid.)”:

One objection to his position is that if Abelard’s position is true, God is not owed praise for His good actions, since He simply cannot help Himself, let alone do otherwise: “since what he cannot omit he does more out of a necessary compulsion arising from his own nature than by having been drawn freely by a will for doing these things.” Furthermore, Abelard’s position would mean that we are more powerful than God, since we, though “far less powerful,” are quite able to do otherwise than we actually do.:”(Ibid.)”:

Abelard’s answer is to distinguish between things which are part of our “weakness” as creatures and things “which are totally removed from the power of divinity and completely foreign to [God's] dignity” – things such as eating, walking, and, yes, sinning. Our ability to do these things and God’s inability to do them is no detraction from God’s dignity or from His praiseworthiness, for not only are they foreign to His nature as God but He has allowed us the power to do what we ought not and to omit what we ought so that He “may appear more glorious by comparison to our weakness.”:”(Ibid., pg. 20.)”:

Furthermore, we should not separate God’s will from his nature, which indeed would make Him seem arbitrary and unworthy of praise:

For even when we say that it is necessary for him to be immortal or that he is necessarily immortal, this necessity of the divine nature is not separated off from his will, since he wills to be that which is necessary for him to be, i.e., which he is not able not to be. But if he necessarily did something in such a way that whether he was willing or unwilling he was forced to do it, then clearly no thanks are due him in this case.

But since his goodness is so great and his will is so much the best that it inclines him to doing this not in an unwilling way but spontaneously, he is all the more fully to be loved on account of his own nature and honored for this, the more this goodness of his belongs to him not accidentally but substantially and immutably. Indeed, the more he exists in a better way on account of this, the more firmly does he persist in it.:”(Ibid., pg. 21.)”:

Now this is an interesting argument to me, for one often hears (especially from Catholic realists) nominalism described as a philosophical position which makes God’s will arbitrary and despotic, because, supposedly, He simply decides to do whatever He does without respect to concerns of rationality – this person is damned just because God (irrationally) wants to damn him; that person is saved just because God (irrationally) wants to save him. However, by all accounts which I have seen, Abelard is considered a rather thoroughgoing nominalist, and here we find him refusing to make a separation between God’s nature and God’s will. For Abelard the nominalist, God is supremely rational, and wills only what is in accord with that supreme rationality. There is no arbitrariness in God’s will at all.

Another objection is that Abelard’s position entails that the damned cannot be blamed for being damned. For, if salvation is good, and if the damned could have been saved, then God, being able to do only what is good and unable to omit doing what is good, would have done what was necessary to save them. But since He did not do what was necessary to save them, they cannot be blamed for not being saved.:”(Ibid., pg. 19.)”: Abelard’s answer is a complicated discussion of distinctions of what it means to say something “can be,” or even “ought to be,” done.

Thus, in the case of a damned person, when we say he “could have been” saved what we mean is that it is not contrary to human nature to be able to be saved: “this nature is in itself so mutable that it admits of both its salvation and its damnation and presents itself to God as something that can be treated in either way.” On the other hand, when we say that God “can save” the damned person, we mean that God’s nature “does not reject saving him.” But while the first is true, the second is false: “Obviously the nature of God totally rejects God’s doing what detracts from his dignity and what is not in the least fitting for him to do.”:”(Ibid., pg. 20.)”: Obviously.

In the same way, to say that a particular utterance is “audible” does not logically imply that anyone with the capacity to hear the utterance actually exists: “Even if all humans in existence were deaf, or were totally non-existent, any utterance would have the nature which renders it audible to humans and nothing would have to be done to it to make it fit to be heard, even though no human exists yet who could hear it or is suited to hear it.” Likewise, to say that it is “right” for the judge to punish the person” does not logically imply that it is “right” for the person to be punished by the judge. For, although the nature of the judge is to punish, and this is his proper action which he cannot not do, it may be the case that the preson he punishes is innocent. In the same way that “right,” though it the same word used of different entities, means something different in different cases, while the concept of “possibility” is used of both creatures and God, it means something different for each. As Abelard puts it, the word “changes its signification” in different cases.:”(Ibid., pp. 20-21.)”:

It should be noted that Abelard lived in the “pioneer age” of Christian scholastic grappling with Aristotle. Compared with the Scholastics themselves, the Aristotle to which Abelard had access was a shadow of his real self. Until the 13th century, Christian thinkers had only the logica vetus (the “old logic”, which consisted of Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation, the third century Neoplatonist Porphyry’s commentary on Aristotle, the Isagoge, and Cicero’s Topics), and the incomplete translations and analyses of Aristotle found in Boethius. Though he is very sophisticated thinker on his own terms and in his own age, his work in Aristotelian thought does not come anywhere near to the depth and analytical power of, say, Thomas Aquinas’ in the next century.


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