Peter Abelard on God’s Actions (II)

Picking up from the last entry on Abelard, I want to focus on one of his closing statements about what God is capable of doing. Let me first quote it in full, noting that owing to the peculiarities of proto-Scholastic Latin (particularly in terms of negations) and the density of the subjects covered in such an approach, it is somewhat difficult to follow in English:

From what has been said, I think, it is easy to refute what seems a possible objection to God’s providence or his will in respect of creatures, so that, although he would not be able to be without those items which he has had in himself from all eternity, because that would not be fitting, still let us not propose that the things which have been foreseen, or which he has willed are, therefore not able to be, i.e., that they happen from necessity. For even if he was not able to be without providence and also the course of events necessarily follows that providence, still it should not thereby be allowed that the things foreseen were not able not to exist. Or if we propose that he was not able to be without a will for creating the world, or a will for compassion, we are not thereby forced to allow that the world or the things that have been created were not able to have failed to be. In the former case, as we qualified it, ‘possible’ made reference to God’s nature; in the latter case, to the nature of creatures. Thus, although God necessarily has from his own nature either providence of things or a good will in relation to them, because this is especially fitting for God, still it is not necessary that the nature of things – things which are completely able not to be – require that they be.:”(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. 21.)”:

Let me try to work through this in a hopefully more intelligible manner – keeping in mind that I am no expert on Medieval philosophy and I am not trying to teach anyone anything, but rather, only to learn something myself.

Abelard says: From what has been said, I think, it is easy to refute what seems a possible objection to God’s providence or his will in respect of creatures, so that, although he would not be able to be without those items which he has had in himself from all eternity, because that would not be fitting, still let us not propose that the things which have been foreseen, or which he has willed are, therefore not able to be, i.e., that they happen from necessity.

In other words, against Abelard’s position (see last entry), someone might object that although God has all perfections which are fitting for His being as God – in this case, perfect foresight of the created order – we should not think that the created order necessarily came to be. Just because God foresaw that it would come to be does not mean it could not not have come to be. For, the objector might say, God, being free to do as He wills, could have decided not to create what He foresaw. Contra Abelard (and the Greek traditions of which he is making use) “foreseeing” does not imply causal determinism.

From what I understand, this is a classic problem in Christian attempts to make use of what is good and true in pagan thought. Pagan thought was drawn to necessity, and especially in Aristotle, to the notion that the world was not created, but eternally exists.:”(Actually, it is a classic problem not just for Christian thought, but for monotheism in general, since the Arabic and Jewish interpreters of Aristotle also extensively discuss this question.)”: Such a position is unacceptable to the Christian, and the desire to give the ancient philosophers as much benefit of the doubt as was possible may be why, according to John Marenbon, “medieval thinkers generally accepted that the ancient philosophers agreed with them that the world is in some sense created, but that they denied that it had a beginning (although there was also an important strand of medieval thinking which held Aristotle not to have definitively concluded that the world is eternal).”:”(Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 2007], pg. 53.)”:

Abelard restates the objection: For even if he was not able to be without providence and also the course of events necessarily follows that providence, still it should not thereby be allowed that the things foreseen were not able not to exist.

Again, just because God’s providence necessarily arranges things the way they actually turn out, we should not say that God was necessarily bound to do things that way. This is (or will become) a central assertion of nominalism, which distinguishes (or will distinguish) between God’s “two powers.” These powers are the potentia absoluta (absolute power), by which God can do anything which it is possible to do:”(That is, anything which does not involve a logical contradiction, such as making a square circle or a rock so big that He can’t lift it.)”: and the potentia ordinata (ordained power), by which God does only what He actually does decide to do.

I say nominalism “will distinguish” between these powers, for it does not appear that Abelard the 12th century nominalist does so distinguish. Indeed, he appears to think of God’s power as existing in only one mode, which, for lack of a better term and in my provisional speculations here I would call “the absolute-ordained,” so that whatever God does He (freely) does necessarily and whatever He omits He (freely) omits necessarily. I’m not sure this characterization of Abelard’s view of God’s power is a good one; I’ll have to keep reading and think about it some more, but for now it seems helpful in understanding his thought.

Seen in connection with Greek determinism, the point of the distinction between “powers” would be to preserve God’s freedom from any coercion outside of Himself – for on Christian terms, of course, there is no power outside of God which is bigger than Him and which could restrain Him from doing or constrain Him to do anything. Later nominalists (particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) will charge that realists make God subservient to Reason, by which the nominalists seem to mean human reason objectified, and this is one motivation for the nominalist project’s demolition of the whole edifice of Scholastic “speculation.”

Abelard continues, again restating the objection: Or if we propose that he was not able to be without a will for creating the world, or a will for compassion, we are not thereby forced to allow that the world or the things that have been created were not able to have failed to be.

Here the double negatives of the Latin (“not forced to allow that…were not able to have failed to be”) really makes the English difficult to understand, but let me try. Abelard is saying, in other words, that if we understand that God necesarily has a will to create, and a will to be compassionate, it does not follow that that the world or the things that have been created were contingent, or, able not to be created. Again, in Abelard’s view God is of necessity bound to do whatever He does and of necessity bound not to do whatever he does not do. For, as seen in the last entry on this subject, whatever God does is good and the only contrary of good is bad and God obviously cannot do anything that is bad.

If I may be allowed to speculate in an amateur’s fasion on this reasoning, Abelard seems to be simply dismissing (did it occur to him at all?) the possibility that there is a hierarchy of goods in God’s mind and that in His providence God might choose between those goods, leaving some undone because there are better ones which can be done. Granting that “the only contrary of good is bad,” as Abelard says, why should we think of either good or bad as being simple wholes which do not admit of internal distinctions, so that to not do “good” simpliciter is necessarily to do “bad” simplicter? Probably, I think, there are some other assumptions lurking in the background, such as are seen in the Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, concerning the “absolute simplicity” of the one Necessary Being (God). In this case, it would not be “clearly” or “obviously” the case, as Abelard thinks, that we would “greatly detract from his supreme goodness” by thinking of Him as able to do things other than what He actually does.

Having stated and restated the objection several times, Abelard then summarizes the answer he thinks he has already given to the objection: In the former case, as we qualified it, ‘possible’ made reference to God’s nature; in the latter case, to the nature of creatures. Thus, although God necessarily has from his own nature either providence of things or a good will in relation to them, because this is especially fitting for God, still it is not necessary that the nature of things – things which are completely able not to be – require that they be.

This convoluted-sounding reasoning plays off an earlier statement Abelard had made, which I have not to this point quoted:

the traditional objection of philosophers that, since the antecedent is possible so also is the consequent, and the existence of the impossible follows from the impossible, is of no concern, if, as we said in the previous book, we understand the validity of their rules to be restricted to the natures of creatures. Thus when they say something is possible or impossible, they mean this in respect of the natures of creatures, i.e. they call possible only what no creature’s nature rejects. But when we say that it is possible for God to do this or that, we relate ‘possible’ to the nature more of divinity than of creatures.:”(Bosley and Tweedale, Medieval Philosophy, pg. 20.)”:

Abelard seems to be saying that there are two distinct meanings for “possible” in these sorts of discussions. On the one hand, with respect to things considered in and of themselves, it is “possible” for a contigent being not to exist – that is, in fact, one of the things that is entailed by the concept of contingency. A necessary thing cannot not exist, but a contingent thing can not exist. On the other hand, with respect to God’s actualization of contigent things, it is “possible” for God to create something that in and of itself can possibly not exist. But since God necessarily actualizes all things which He foresees as contingently existing things, “possibility” for God really means “actually.” The Muslim philosopher Avicenna, whose mature work preceded Abelard’s mature work by almost a hundred years, says this explicitly in his own discussion of contigent and necessary beings, which again shows that the basic issues raised by ancient philosophers are issues for monotheism in general and not just for Christianity.

So, when Abelard says at the close of his summary answer to the objection, Thus, although God necessarily has from his own nature either providence of things or a good will in relation to them…still it is not necessary that the nature of things – things which are completely able not to be – require that they be, he appears to mean only that while it is “possible” in one way for a contigent being not to come into existence, it is in another way “possible” for it to necessarily come into existence – and, by the same token, “impossible” for it not to come into existence. Simple, right?

Somewhat facetiously, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve just followed my Medieval forebears by writing a commentary on a great work. Too bad I won’t get any academic credit for it.


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