Monday, December 19, 2011

Dialectic As Seen in a Medieval Narrative

By Jacob Aitken

“The critique of religion is the premise of all critique,” or so said Karl Marx.[i]  One understands the irony and difficulty of beginning a traditionalist essay with a positive reference to Karl Marx.  Despite where Marx went wrong, however, there is an important truth in the above statement:  Behind political and social structures lie deep theological issues.  This essay argues that behind much of the Western philosophical and religious tradition is a dialectical understanding of God and the world.  The author will draw heavily from the earlier work of Joseph P. Farrell[ii] and from the great medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz.[iii]  Specifically, the author will rely on Prof. Farrell's reading of the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus as the latter develops “the dialectic,” the dialectic's role in early and medieval Christian thought, and specifically how this dialectical reading of God and society embodies itself, per Kantorowicz's gloss, in a case study dealing with medieval iconography.[iv]

A Few Terms Clarified

This paper will use a number of philosophical and theological terms which do not always have the same meaning when used by different people at different times.   To avoid unnecessary confusion, the author will define how he will use the terms throughout this essay.[v] Unless otherwise indicated, the term “dialectic” will be used in a specifically Plotinian sense.   There is a connection to the later usage by G. W. F. Hegel, and further essays will explore that connection, but that is not the sense in which it is used in this paper. By dialectic one means a “dialectic of opposition.”   Plotinus defines it as clarifying terms by setting them against their opposites.[vi]

One must also say a few words about the discussion of God and the Trinity in this essay.

When the word “simplicity” is used, it primarily denotes the meaning given by St. Augustine:  “to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just, or to be wise.[vii]” In other words, Augustine is identifying God's attributes (wisdom, justice, etc.) with God's essence.  This is elsewhere known as absolute divine simplicity.  It is not the same as divine simplicity when used by men like St. Basil the Great.  As the reader will see below, the dialectic is directly related to absolute divine simplicity. 

Plotinus:   The Dialectic Becomes Visible

Like many other narratives in Western history, this one also begins in ancient Greece.  The ancient philosopher Plotinus represents the high-point of the school known as neo-Platonism.  As Joseph P. Farrell notes, “In Plotinus' system it is precisely the Idea of Good, the simplicity itself, which forms the ontological starting point for the system.  For Plotinus had as his goal not only to demonstrate the Good, but to demonstrate that the demonstrations of the Good are the means of attaining it.[viii]  The last clause in the above sentence is commonly what is known as “the dialectic.”

For Plotinus, perhaps in contrast to later philosophers, the dialectic was not so much a means of “doing philosophy,” but a way to purify the soul and lead the soul into truth.  While that is a commendable goal and should certainly be kept in mind when studying Plotinus, the interest of this essay is in his method. 

At the risk of oversimplification (no pun intended), Plotinus' system faced the temptation to reduce all reality to “the One.”   Plotinus goes on to say, “The One is not something else or in the divisible, nor is it without parts in the sense of the smallest possible.[ix]  This raises a question, though.   It does appear to us that there are distinctions.  Given that the One encompasses all of reality, yet there appear distinctions in our day-to-day experience, how can one account for distinctions?   Let us return to Plotinus' definition of the dialectic:  It is the science of saying what something is and how it differs from its negation.  Therefore, the dialectic is knowing (or reconciling) something by means of opposites. 

This brings us to a tension:  If Plotinus' system tends to reduce all reality to the One, yet there remains the fact that we can speak of distinctions (given that we can even philosophize about the One), we come to the conclusion that in positing the One we also posit the oppositions to the One (keep in mind the nature of the dialectic itself: We know something by its oppositions).  Therefore, if the One, then the Many.  Farrell concludes, “The One needs the Many because it is dialectically dependent on the Many, the Finite, and the Relative, otherwise it will not be the One at all.[x]  Before continuing, one  will advance another conclusion:  Although the One dialectically demands the Many (distinctions), it also tends to minimize or negate these distinctions.  If that sounds contradictory, that is no accident.  The dialectic is the attempt to reconcile opposites; it remains to be seen whether these attempts are successful.  We will return to this point later. 

Blessed Augustine:   The Dialectic Christianized

It is tempting to dismiss large parts of St. Augustine's theology as simply “Christianity in a neo-Platonist form.”  Several scholars today have challenged the contrast popularly drawn that Augustine began his theology with abstract reasoning concerning the Divine Essence, whereas the Greek Fathers began with the Three Persons.[xi] Certainly, there are facile stereotypes of both Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers concerning the Trinity, but one must still argue that there is a grain of truth in these stereotypes.  Augustine's triadology seems to lean heavily towards the priority of the Divine Essence over the Three Persons:  Given the fact that Augustine phrases his understanding of the Divine Essence as “absolutely simple essence,[xii]” and notwithstanding the fact his system resembles the neo-Platonist system on many fronts, one must argue at least on some level that Augustine shared key assumptions with Plotinus.  

But how is this “the dialectic?”  Space prevents a larger examination, and if an Augustinian scholar responds that I have ignored key passages in St. Augustine, he would be correct.   However, most summaries of Western Trinitarianism would concur with the above passage, even if they would disagree with the conclusions elsewhere.   One example will suffice.  Remember what was said about the dialectic earlier:  given both the absolute unity of the One, and also the fact that we can speak of the one (which seems to posit a “many”), we explain this unity by a dialectic of oppositions.  Western theology will pick up on this Plotinian move and add a different one:  relation of oppositions.  Augustine writes, speaking of the Father's relation to the Son, “Therefore, He subsists relatively, as he begets relatively.[xiii]

Nameless Detour: The Filioque and Theological Precision

As above, it is also debatable to what degree St. Augustine actually taught the Filioque as would be understood by later theologians.  Certainly, there is a strong movement in On the Trinity which points to the “double-procession.”  I will assume, along with what appears to be the standard position in Trinitarian scholarship, that Augustine did teach the Filioque.   Whether he did teach the Filioque is beside the point.  What remains is that the Filioque is seen as an implication of Augustine's (neo-Platonic) view of absolute divine simplicity.  Given the unity of the One, and that we can only know the One via oppositions, we must ask the question how can there be personal distinctions in the Godhead if the essence is “absolutely One?”  Augustine answers:  by relations of opposition.   This is where the Filioque comes in:  the Father begets a Son (relatively) and the Father and Son beget a third term, the Holy Spirit.[xiv]

Unfortunately, there arises an immediate problem for the Christian tradition.  Ancient triadology had always distinguished the persons of the Godhead by their operations: we know the persons by what they do.  For example, the Father is Father because he begets, and so on.  Ancient triadology had a specific term for the Father's action:  causation.   The Filioque, however, places causation in the field of two persons.   Therefore, the hypostatic distinctions between Father and Son are blurred.   It is more difficult to identify them.[xv]

Case Study:  The Aachen Gospels

The above argumentation is no doubt abstract, and some will wonder if it is merely speculation and inference.  Perhaps it is, but the great medieavalist Ernst Kantorowicz came to a similar conclusion even if he did not always identify the theological issues involved.  Kantorowicz resumes his discussion of medieval political theology by noting the artwork surrounding the copy of the Gospel of John located in Aachen, Germany, circa A. D. 973. Kantorowicz will contrast this with the “Reichenau painter.”  The Aachen front-piece has a picture of Emperor Otto III whose throne is placed in mid-air.  The political connotations, while interesting, are beside the point.  What concerns the reader here is the Christological appearance of the Emperor, and whether the Emperor is representing God the Father or God the Son, or neither. 

Before proceeding, one must clarify a few presuppositions regarding both iconography and theology:  In iconography the Son is identified by having a halo superimposed by a cross, along with the words (in Greek) “ho own,” he who is.  Commenting on the art of the Aachen Gospels, Kantorowicz notes, “All this results from a philosophy of state which is very different...[while] there is a relationship between the ruler on his throne and the remote Father in heaven; Christ is absent from that scene...Nothing could have been more contrary to the Reichenau painter.  His emperor is in the place of Christ, and the hand stretching down from above is surrounded by a cross-halo,” connoting the hand of the Son.[xvi]

Understandably, the above paragraph is confusing, and without access to the artwork it will likely remain so.  In explaining the above paragraph and how it relates to the essay, one will also begin to introduce some conclusions.   In the Reichenau painting one could identify God the Son quite clearly: given the constant reference to the Old Testament narratives to justify monarchy, and given that the Emperor was seen to be an imitator of Christ, these Old Testament narratives, indeed the Old Testament itself, was a revelation of God the Son.    God the Son is clearly identifiable in history.  He is identifiable by his actions in history.  Following Kantorowicz one must infer that the art of the Aachen gospels did not have these identifying characteristics.   It is harder to distinguish God the Father from God the Son.  Kantorowicz concludes:  “The 'Lord' who dwells in the king and decrees justice through the king, is God the Father rather than God the Son, although admittedly in the later Middle Ages it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish clearly between the first and second persons of the Trinity.[xvii]


Conservatives and traditionalists rightly want to combat the forces of Marxism, secularism, and other villains of Western culture.   One must wonder, however, if they proceed from a faulty understanding of the doctrine of God—indeed, an understanding which posits a dialectic within the heart of the Godhead—how successful can their defense of “Christian culture” be.  St. Gregory of Nazianzus makes a pointed observation regarding this:  “The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia.  The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas and may they continue to be so.  For Anarchy is a thing without order and the rule of many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution.[xviii]  Gregory's point is this:  Political positions flow from theological presuppositions (note Gregory's use of the word arche in Greek, which has political connotations).   Per our discussion, if there is a dialectical point within one's religious views, one can ultimately expect this dialectic to manifest itself in one's political views.[xix]  In this context Socrates' maxim to “know thyself” takes on new meaning:  Examine thy presuppositions.

Works Cited

Augustine, On the Trinity, Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 3 (First Series), Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologica.  Great Books of the Western World vol. 19 Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.

Ayres, Lewis.   Augustine and the Trinity, Cambridge, MA:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Farrell, Joseph P.  God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes.  Seven Councils Press, 1997.

Gregory of Nazianzus, The Third Theological Oration, Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 7 (Second Series), Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieaval Political Theology, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [reprint 1997].

Marx, Karl.  Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, ed. Joseph O'Malley. New York: Cambridge University Press, [reprint 1982].

Saint Photios, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, trans. Joseph P. Farrell,  Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987.

[i]  Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, ed. Joseph O'Malley. New York: Cambridge University Press, [reprint 1982], 131.
[ii]  Joseph P. Farrell, God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes.  Seven Councils Press, 1997.
[iii]  Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieaval Political Theology, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [reprint 1997]. 
[iv]  The author should immediately confess the coming inadequacies of this paper.  Numerous scholars have studied this issue (and similar others) for their entire lives; this paper is simply summarizing the key points and crystallizing the debate, pointing out key arguments, and hopefully facilitating future discussions.  
[v]  One hopes the definitions are not merely arbitrary.   To ensure that, the author will quote from standard, scholarly sources when possible.  
[vi]  Plotinus, The Enneads, I.III.6, in Great Books of the Western World vol. 17, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.
[vii]  Augustine, On the Trinity, Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 3 (First Series), Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 100.
[viii]  Farrell, God, History, and Dialectic, p. 92.
[ix]  Plotinus, The Enneads, VI.IX.6.
[x]  Farrell, God, History, and Dialectic, 94.  I have simply summarized a few of Farrell's conclusions.  The reader is strongly urged to consult this section of God, History, and Dialectic for Farrell's larger argument. 
[xi]  Cf.  Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, Cambridge, MA:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[xii]  Augustine, On the Trinity, 100ff.
[xiii]  Ibid., 111.  This form of argumentation hardens radically when one approaches Thomas Aquinas, cf. Summa Theologica, I. qu. 28. a. 3. 
[xiv]  While Augustine would reject Plotinus's “Chain of Being,” the structure of his thought is quite similar, at least on the surface level.
[xv]  Saint Photios, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, trans. Joseph P. Farrell,  Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987, 66.
[xvi]  Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 77.  Kantorowicz is not arguing that the Emperor takes the place of Christ, like in some secular papal theory, but that the Emperor is imitating Christ and that Christ is clearly identifiable.
[xvii]  Ibid., 159.
[xviii]  Gregory of Nazianzus, The Third Theological Oration, Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 7 (Second Series), Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 301.
[xix]  This assumes, of course, that people always act logically, which they do not.

Jacob Aitken is an educator in Monroe, Louisiana.

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