Neoplatonism under Fire: John Philoponus` Arguments against

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Chapter 7: Neoplatonism under Fire: John Philoponus’ Arguments against
Proclus On the Eternity of the World
John Philoponus (ca 490-ca 570) was a member of the Neoplatonist school of
Alexandria. He was a student of Ammonius (ca 435/45-ca 517/26), one of
Proclus’ students from Athens. Philoponus is normally not considered an
important thinker in the Christian tradition. However, I think he should be
considered as important. Not in the sense that he contributed decisively to solve
any doctrinal controversy, rather the opposite, but in the sense that he made an
important contribution to Christian cosmology on an issue of common concern to
all parties in a doctrinally divided Christendom. In 529, the same year that
Justinian closed the Neoplatonist school of Athens, Philoponus published the
first of his two books against the Aristotelian and Neoplatonist doctrine of an
eternal world, his Against Proclus On the Eternity of the World. The second book,
finished some years later was directed against Aristotelian cosmology, viz. the
Against Aristotle, on the Eternity of the World.
The text of the Contra Aristotelem is lost, but many fragments are preserved
in Philoponus’ opponent, the Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius’ commentary
on Aristotle’s Physics. The most famous argument is designed to show that
motion and time are generated.1 According to Simplicius, Philoponus has three
premises:
(i) The first is that if something is generated, something must pre-exist it.
(ii) The second premise consists of three conditions:
— (a) it is impossible for an infinite number to exist in actuality,
— (b) it is impossible for anyone to traverse the infinite in counting,
— (c) it is impossible that anything should be greater than the infinite, or to
increase the infinite.
1
The fragments of the Contra Aristotelem are collected and translated by Wildberg (). For the argument
just mentioned, cf. fragment 132, 143-6.
2
(iii) The third premise says that if it were necessary for the generation of
something that an infinite number of things, one generated after another, should
exist, it would be impossible for that thing to exist.
The obvious conclusion to this reasoning is that movement is not infinite
and therefore cannot go on forever. The world, one could claim, does not, for
these reasons, exist from eternity. We saw in chapter 2 that, according to
Aristotle, circular motion is the only continuous motion, and the only motion
that could possibly be eternal. But, Philoponus says, since it is not possible to
conceive of one motion before another infinitely, even the circular motions of the
heavens had a beginning. If we take Aristotle and his Neoplatonist
commentators onto account, these arguments seems to be sound, and Philoponus
has done his Christian religion a favour in putting Neoplatonist cosmology
under devastating fire. His Neoplatonist opponent, Simplicius, is furious. He
abuses Philoponus an ignorant person who attacks not only the divine Plato, but
also the divine world order.
Proclus had written a book with eighteen arguments against the Christian
doctrine of creation. This book is, unfortunately, lost. In 529 Philoponus
answered with his Contra Proclum, a book with eighteen arguments against
Proclus. Philoponus follows the sequence of reasons developed by Proclus. He
first presents his opponent’s argument, he then summarizes his refutation in a
number of points, and finally Philoponus presents the corpus of the refutation in
which he amplifies his points and develops his arguments. We shall summarize
some of Proclus’ arguments and discuss Philoponus’ refutations.
In his second argument Proclus argued that a pattern is relative to its
copy. Therefore, if the pattern is a pattern eternally, it is eternally related to an
eternally existing copy. If one of a pair of correlative things or terms does not
exist, the other does not exist either. To illustrate this point made by Proclus, we
could say that there is no father without a child, and no child without a father. In
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the present case: if there is no pattern, there is no cosmos copying it, and if there
is no copy, there is no pattern.
Philoponus denounces this by two arguments. (i) If the pattern consists of
Forms, and if the Forms are substance, their being belongs to them in their own
right, and not because of their being related to something else. It is not the
essential character of a substance to be a relative. It follows that it is not the
essence of the pattern of the cosmos to be such a pattern and to have it’s being in
relation to its copy, the cosmos. Consequently, even if there is an eternal pattern,
there need be no eternal world. (ii) If the Forms are not substance, but rather
certain creative logoi or concepts (noeseis), in accordance with which the Creator
frames things, the being of such logoi consists in their being concepts, and they
become a paradigm when the Creator acts in accordance with them. — Thomas
Aquinas exploits this distinction between divine Ideas as patterns and concepts
as well, when he distinguishes between a divine Idea as an exemplar, i.e. a
pattern, and as a ratio, i.e. a concept. An exemplar is a ‘principle of the making of
things’, while a ratio is a ‘principle of knowledge’.2 — According to Philoponus,
there is no need that the being of created things follows upon the bare existence
of the logoi qua concepts of the divine mind. The logoi of all things are present in
divine foreknowledge without division (ameros).
In his third argument, Proclus made the point that the Creator will always
be Creator in actuality, and for this reason things will always undergo creation. If
this was not the case, God would be a potential Creator, but in that case we have,
according to an Aristotelian principle, to suppose another actual power that
actualizes what is potential. Therefore, we shall either need to go back
indefinitely, seeking one cause before another, or else we have to admit some
actual creative cause. From this it follows that an actual creative cause eternally
made the world.
2
Summa Theologiae I, q. 15, art. 3. Cf. Tollefsen (2008), 89.
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In answering this argument, Philoponus has to adapt his philosophical
tools to ajust the eternal being of the Creator to the temporal results of His
actions. Philoponus makes some familiar Aristotelian distinctions that may fit his
purpose. He first distinguishes between two kinds of potentiality and two kinds
of actuality. The first kind of potentiality is the natural fitness (epitedeiotes) to
become something. A child could be, for instance, fit to become a grammarian.
When this potential is actualized, we have first actuality, as when a child has
learnt the principles of grammar. This condition again may not be activated at
the moment, and this condition may be termed a second potentiality. This second
potentiality may be actualized in a second actuality when someone is actually
practising his knowledge. Philoponus will argue against Proclus that God always
possesses the capacity to create, like a second potentiality, but that God dose not
have to execute this capacity in a second actuality. He may execute it or not
execute it. Philoponus says that when a cause is actual, that which is caused by it
will likewise be actual. This is true, however, only for second actuality, not for
the first. If God always is creator in the sense of second actuality, the world
would always exist. What Philoponus claims, on the other hand, is that God is
always creator in capacity, i.e. in first actuality = second potentiality. He says that
God is always actual creator in this sense. This thought should be in accordance
with traditional Christian thinking, and the natural conclusion is that the cosmos
does not always have to exist.
Philoponus theory may be summarized in the following scheme:
First potentiality
First
actuality
=
second
Second actuality
potentiality
= Natural fitness, i.e. what a
= (i) Acquired capacity, for
The
nature
instance
what one is capable of
is
capable
of,
instance learning grammar
for
knowledge
of
grammar, (ii) this capacity
may not be executed at the
moment
actually
practising
of
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(i)
God
is
always
actual
God creates the world
Creator in capacity and (ii) He
is always able to execute that
capacity or not to execute it
Philoponus strengthens his argument when commenting on Proclus’
fourth argument for the eternity of the world. Proclus has made the point that if
God enters form not creating into creating, He suffers a change (movement), and
a change takes time. Since this is inconceivable, God is always producing the
world. Against this Philoponus argues that it is not possible to conceive of any
movement between not producing and producing. The execution of an activity
(i.e. second actuality) out of a habit (i.e. first actuality = second potentiality) is
instantaneous (achronos = non-temporal, without time). The end or limit of not
making and the beginning of making take place in the same instant.
God’s making, or His activity as a whole, is neither movement nor takes
time when He makes all things by His will alone. Philoponus argues extensively
for this principle, by the aid of several examples. He says Aristotle distinguishes
between complete and incomplete activity (4.4). Incomplete activity is
movement. Movement is the change from first potentiality to capacity, i.e. first
actuality. This change is incomplete activity. — Why is it incomplete activity? I
shall try to answer this below. — Complete activity, on the other hand, is the
instantaneous production from a capacity without this capacity becoming
different in any way:
Instantaneous production is procuction that does not proceed with the passage (kinesei) of time
but happens in an instant, like the emanation of light from a source of illumination; for as soon as
a source of illumination such as fire or the sun is visible, everything capable of it is
instantaneously illuminated.
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I shall try to explain this argument by aid of an illustration. Someone who is not
a painter wants to become a painter. Since he is a human being, we may suppose
he has a natural fitness that is a potentiality for becoming a painter. — We
should keep in mind that this fitness or potentiality is called first potentiality. —
The transition or change from first potentiality to actuality is called movement,
and a movement is an incomplete activity. Why is this so? To be a painter means
to be in possession of a sufficient amount of chemical and technical knowledge,
and to be capable of mastering several techniques. The way from not being a
painter to being a painter involves, obviously, a learning process that includes
several separate steps. The steps follow one after another in the direction of the
final purpose. With a view to being a painter, none of the steps possesses any
completeness. I mean, I am not yet a painter if I learn to mix colours according to
certain rules. I suppose one could say that not even several steps taken together
successively or all taken together successively constitutes completeness. The way
from potentiality to actuality involves a lot of changes that we may call a
movement in several steps, and it takes time. However, what is eventually
achieved is an actualized condition we may call first actuality. A person who is in
this condition possesses, as said above, a certain kind of knowledge and the
mastering of certain techniques. In this condition we may say that he has a
capacity, and at the moment he may or may not execute his capacity. Somehow
the actuality he possesses, i.e. the capacity he has, is a potentiality for being
active in s certain way. According to the scheme above, this potentiality is called
a second potentiality. Then we come to the point for which the whole illustration
is constructed: how are we to understand the transition from first actuality =
capacity = second potentiality to second actuality? It seems to me that it is
reasonable to say this transition is immediate. If I possess the capacity for
actually painting, the transition from not painting to painting does not involve
time, but is instantaneous.
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God brings things to existence by His thought alone and even if God
always possesses the concepts and logoi of things exactly the same way, it is not
necessary that all things should have coexisted with the thoughts of God from
eternity. God is above all necessity and it is therefore not needful that what is
thought by God should necessarily exist simultaneous with (hama) His thought.
Philoponus says:
And so, as has been shown, the creative logoi of things in God always possess actuality and
perfection but God brings each thing into existence and gives it being when He so wishes,
bringing all things into existence by just willing them; and He so wishes at the time when coming
into existence is good for the things that come into existence; and what is in accordance with
nature is in every way good, as was shown in chapter one.
In his replies to Proclus’ sixteenth argument, Philoponus says that even if God
always had the will that the ordered state exist, it does not mean that He willed it
to exist always. The force of his argument depends, at least partially, on the
soundness of the idea on an immediate transition from a state of eternal capacity,
as God’s contemplation of His logoi, into the external activity of creation. The
term immediate transition means that it does not take time and that it is without
movement. The elements of the argument may be summarized thus:
First
actuality,
second
Second actuality
potentiality
God’s eternal having of the
Immediate
logoi
contemplative
temporal, without change or
His
movement
thought,
in
i.e.
internal
transition,
non-
God’s
external
activity
of
creation
activity, i.e. His remaining
Himself as cause
God may eternally think the logoi (= the paradigm of the cosmos), and He may
eternally think that they are to be actualized externally in a temporal scheme that
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makes beings occur successively in accordance with before and after. It seems
possible to think the transition from God’s having to God’s making as occurring
instantaneously, i.e. without involving the divine agent in the extension
(diastema) of space, time, and change.
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