Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Maximus, Concrete Universals

Lately, I'm reading a book by von Balthasar on St Maximus the Confessor. It is sometimes very difficult, and my current difficulty is on the meaning of the "concrete universal".

For background, when I first encountered philosophy, it was through the mind of Plato. I was convinced that there were "separated substances" (I didn't yet know that phrase) also known as the Platonic forms, and that every being was what it was through participating in one of these many forms. They were a cause of both being and of knowing. In college, I read lots and lots of Aristotle. As time went on, I refined my use of the word "universal" to what is said of many and to the idea in my mind after I have abstracted it from the here and the now, from its particular conditions. So when I see concrete universal, I think, "A contradiction in terms?" But there's probably more to it than that...

If the universal (the whole) only exists in the mind or in speech, then is there no real unity among the human race? If there were an Idea that caused all men to be such, then they would be one through having a common cause. As it is, I do not think there is some immaterial form between us and God that we participate in to be what we are. We certainly all exist inasmuch as we participate in God's essence, but this is had in common with all creatures. This concern for the unity of humanity is also related to the question of our redemption. "What is not assumed is not redeemed," is the famous axiom of Irenaeus and many early fathers. Therefore, Christ must completely assume human nature--but how can this affect us unless there is some real unity between our nature and his that goes beyond speech and thought?

One thought I had is that relation exists through action/passion or quantity according to Aristotle. Therefore it seems that it is through the action/passion of begetting/begotten that the whole human race is united (or at least related, which would mean some kind of unity). Having Aristotle in mind, I thought of two possibilities:
  • The human race has always existed.
    • This is almost certainly not held by anyone.
    • Yet Aristotle would have held this view, which makes me wonder if he could have thought that all men are related through generation. Perhaps infinite time would mean that inevitably everyone is related to everyone, and actually through infinitely many cycles of ancestors. So I suppose that would do it.
  • The human race began to exist.
    • This is less messy: all humanity traces back to a pair of parents.
    • It can be a little messy since certain evolutionary takes will allow that different communities of men arose in different regions at different times. But do these accept that man is essentially different from other animals? I'm going to assume that. Many of these will reduce all biological operation to the chemical and that to the physical, so that "birth" is not even a category of the real. I'm not talking to those people...not right now.
    • So then there are a single pair of parents from which all men sprung.
Now it is said that "in Adam all men sinned." This is bizarre, but because the "universal" was only said of him, whatever he did in the particular was true of all men. (I'm not going to talk about Eve right now...again, too messy. But I do think that will be important.) So when Adam sat, it was true that all men sat. When Adam sinned, all men sinned. So if anyone was ever a "concrete universal," it was probably Adam. And Christ too, who "recapitulated all humanity in himself" and was the second Adam or the last Adam. One problem is that Christ is not related to men through generation (unless somehow his actions affect us through him being a distant relative of our through Mary...not likely). Somehow this notion is involved with our salvation--that's why we are baptized, that is, born again.

Another difficulty with action/passion as basis of unity is that once that action is completed, is the relation only in the past? That seems wrong, since I am the son of my father, but it's not as though he is currently begetting me. Generation is complete. So it seems odd to me that we are related because of an action that is no longer happening.

Now I need to talk about matter. We talked about formal cause (which is only united in the mind, or if Platonic then they are also agents) and agent cause (whether Platonic forms or through generation), but matter is probably bound up with the problem and the solution of what a concrete universal is and if there is such a thing. It is interesting that the form which exists in the mind, gets there by abstracting from matter and material conditions; and yet the only reason there are many individuals under a universal in the first place is because of matter. Material things are necessarily separate on account of having diverse matter--no two material things can be in the same place at the same time. The mind is one place where two material things come together. Bob and George are two distinct beings and will never be in the same physical place, but I can think both of them at once (so they are both in my mind) or can think about their nature (and in this way they are one, in my mind). The matter keeps them apart outside of my mind. The matter does allow for them to be potentially one, like...if Bob ate George. George would cease to be George and Bob would be a little bigger. So probably not the unity we're looking for.

Going back to the concrete universal, Maximus talks about diastole and systole within a universal. The flux of individuals under a universal spreads out or compresses a universal. This is where things start to get confusing, but some simple sentences will (I think) manifest it a bit. If there are no men in America, then "No men in America is true." But through the actions of particular men, universal statements about man change. So if Bob and George discover America, it is now true to say, "Some men are in America." They have changed what is universally true of man!

All right, I think this is making sense. So is concrete universal opposed to abstract universal in that it takes into account all the particularities of individual men whereas the abstract does not take into account any? If that's all, then that's far more clear! There's still the interesting question I have about what really united all men, but at least I'll know what a concrete universal is.

This probably has implications for questions about male and female. It's odd that it belongs to man to be sexed, but that at least two individuals are required to express this diversity and even to reproduce, which is an essential action of man insofar as he is an animal. (Too difficult to think about.) Something to do with matter, why only material things reproduce, and more. This also makes a little sense of why Thomas might have said a female is a defective male--that is, to safeguard the unity of what man is. Most people would probably hope for a better solution to that problem...

Over break, I hope to finish the Maximus book, begin a book on Gregory of Nyssa and then read Thomas on how Christ assumed our nature. Von Balthasar also quotes Hegel more than I would expect (sometimes critically). I do not expect to pick up Hegel soon, but that may be somewhere down the line.

Oh, and final cause does not seem to be sufficient to unite us. All creatures aim at God in some way, but that seems to general to define man (just as with God as our exemplary cause or agent cause). Then again, through the grace of Christ, we do turn to God as our end in a more perfect way than the general natural tendency to good, and this is a cause of the unity of the Church, the body of Christ.


  1. Do you still plan to do any further study of Maximus after Balthasar's book? On the subject of Christ assuming human nature and willing, there's an interesting article by a recent Maximus scholar, Paul Blowers, looking at Maximus and John of Damascus on gnomic willing in Christ: https://www.academia.edu/5356923/_Maximus_the_Confessor_and_John_of_Damascus_on_Gnomic_Will_in_Christ_Clarity_and_Ambiguity_Union_Seminary_Quarterly_Review_63_2012_44-50

  2. I'll probably read von Balthasar's book on Gregory of Nyssa next, but I'll read that essay when I finish this book, since it doesn't look too long. I'm also reading the Centuries on Love, but very slowly...