Friday, March 25, 2011

Sentire cum Ecclesia: Albertus Magnus: "De Adhaerendo Deo"

Chapter 4: How man's activity should be purely in the intellect and not in the senses [Qualiter operatio humana debeat esse in solo intellectu, et non in sensibus?]

Happy therefore is the person who by continual removal of fantasies and images [per abstersionem continuam phantasmatum et imaginum], by turning within, and raising the mind to God, finally manages to dispense with the products of the imagination [obliviscitur phantasmatum], and by so doing works within [operatur interius], nakedly and simply, and with a pure understanding and will [nudo ac simplici ac puro intellectu et affectu], on the simplest of all objects, God [circa objectum simplicissimum Deum]. So eliminate from your mind all fantasies, objects, images and shapes of all things other than God [Omnia igitur phantasmata, species, imagines, ac formas rerum omnium citra Deum a mente rejicias], so that, with just naked understanding, intent and will, your practice will be concerned with God himself within you. For this is the end of all spiritual exercises - to turn the mind to the Lord God and rest in him with a completely pure understanding and a completely devoted will, without the entanglements and fantasies of the imagination [Nempe finis omnium exercitiorum hic est, scilicet intendere et quiescere in Domino Deo intra te per purissimum intellectum, et devotissimum affectum sine phantasmatibus et implicationibus].

This sort of exercise is not practised by fleshly organs nor by the exterior senses, but by that by which one is indeed a man [per quod quis homo est]. For a man is precisely understanding and will [homo vero quis est intellectu et affectu] {!}. For that reason, in so far as a man is still playing with the products of the imagination and the senses, and holds to them, it is obvious that he has not yet emerged from the motivation and limitations of his animal nature [nondum exisse motus et limites bestialitatis suae], that is of that which he shares in common with the animals. For these know and feel objects by means of recognised shapes and sense impressions and no more, since they do not possess the higher powers of the soul. But it is different with man, who is created in the image and likeness of God with understanding, will, and free choice [secundum intellectum et affectum et liberum arbitrium, ad Dei imaginem et similitudinem creato], through which he should be directly, purely and nakedly impressed and united with God, and firmly adhere to him [pure et nude imprimi, et uniri, firmiterque inhaerere] {Notice the use of inhaerare…. I wonder if there was any significant difference between adhaerare and inhaerare in Albert's time.}.

For this reason the Devil tries eagerly and with all his power to hinder this practice so far as he can, being envious of this in man, since it is a sort of prelude and initiation of eternal life [quodammodo praeambulum et initium vitae aeternae]. So he is always trying to draw man's mind away from the Lord God, now by temptations or passions, now by superfluous worries and pointless cares [nunc sollicitudine superflua et cura indiscreta], now by restlessness and distracting conversation and senseless curiosity [nunc turbatione, et conversatione dissoluta, curiositateque irrationabili], now by the study of subtle books [nunc per studia librorum subtilium], irrelevant discussion, gossip and news [colloquia aliena, rumores et novitatem] {Facebook! Yahoo! Google!}, now by hardships, now by opposition, etc. Such matters may seem trivial enough and hardly sinful [etsi nonnumquam levia et tamquam nulla videantur peccata], but they are a great hindrance to this holy exercise and practice [tamen magna sunt impedimenta hujus sancti exercitii et operis]. {Note the pragmatic valuation: even what is not "sinful" is still not glory, and therefore to be "hated".} Therefore, even if they may appear useful and necessary, they should be rejected, whether great or small, as harmful and dangerous, and put out of our minds.

Above all therefore it is necessary that things heard, seen, done and said, and other such things, must be received without adding things from the imagination, without mental associations and without emotional involvement [sine phantasmatibus, imaginibus et occupationibus], and one should not let past or future associations, implications or constructs of the imagination form and grow [nec etiam ex consequenti vel antea vel tunc super hoc phantasmata et implicationes formentur et nutriantur]. For when constructs of the imagination are not allowed to enter the memory and mind, a man is not hindered, whether he be engaged in prayer, meditation, or reciting psalms, or in any other practice or spiritual exercise, nor will they recur again.

So commit yourself confidently and without hesitation, all that you are, and everything else, individually and in general, to the unfailing and totally reliable providence of God, in silence and in peace, and he will fight for you {cf. Sir 4:28}. He will liberate you and comfort you more fully, more effectively and more satisfactorily than if you were to dream about it all the time, day and night, and were to cast around frantically all over the place with the futile and confused thoughts of your mind in bondage, nor will you wear out your mind and body, wasting your time, and stupidly and pointlessly exhausting your strength. So accept everything, separately and in general, wherever it comes from and whatever its origin, in silence and peace, and with an equal mind, as coming to you from a father's hand and his divine providence [Cuncta ergo et singula, undecumque et qualitercumque occurrentia ortum habeant, sic accipe cum taciturnitate et tranquillitate aequanimiter, quemadmodum de manu paternae divinaeque providentiae tibi venirent]. So render your imagination bare of the images of all physical things as is appropriate to your state and profession, so that you can cling to him with a bare and undivided mind [nuda mente et sincere inhaereas ei], as you have so often and so completely vowed to do, without anything whatever being able to come between your soul and him, so that you can pass purely and unwaveringly from the wounds of his humanity into the light of his divinity [pure fixeque fluere possis a vulneribus humanitatis in lumen suae divinitatis].


djr said...

I am torn between thinking that this is good Christian reasoning and that this is life-denying masochism. I'm pretty committed to denying the identity between those two, though. I like to think that Nietzsche was only right about Lutheranism.

Does Aquinas think that "man's activity should be purely in the intellect and not in the senses"? My untutored, second-hand Thomistic intuitions say "no way," but I've been surprised before.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

It is quite extreme, but keep in mind that it's counsel from an abbot (?) or at least religious superior to other religious. Yesterday I was pondering how much systematic confusion there might be in long-standing debates about human nature in so far as a great deal of Christian anthropology is not simply about "the man on the street" but rather about those willing to undergo theosis. That is: would not a careful historical analysis find a difference between "natural" and "sacramental" anthropology? Even among Christians the confusion is very troubling. Here we have ordinary Christians browsing their local Christian bookstore for "something interesting" and they buy, say, à Kempis' Imitation of Christ as if it were toilet reading!

As for the issue of sense and intellect, I was also quite taken aback at Albert's radical intellectualism. Partially I wondered if Thomas' teaching on these matters was not as much a kind of "Aristotelization" of Christian anthropology (viz. in contrast to his master) as his natural theology was a "baptizing" of Aristotle (viz. in contrast to Averroes et al.). So again, I think the *religious* focus of this book should modulate how generally true Albert's pre-/proscriptions are.

djr said...

I'm not sure the sort of account you want to give of what Albert is up to really holds together. It suggests, first of all, either that there are two unrelated sorts of highest good -- human flourishing and theosis -- or that some people are just superior to others and can achieve the genuinely highest good, while the inferiors like us have to make due with the second-best good. The second alternative might not be a problem for someone like Aristotle, but it seems to make little sense for a Christian: though of course we can accept that some people will be better suited or placed in better circumstances for a more rigorously ascetic contemplative life, it seems incompatible with any sensible Christian theology to hold that people who fail to achieve the highest good are still somehow just as well off as those who achieve it. The deeper problem, though, is that either this sort of intellectualism is true or it isn't; if it is, then the people who aren't living the monastic life are just not going to be able to achieve the highest good, plain and simple. My sense is that Aquinas, in so far as he believes that the highest good is something that we will achieve only after the general resurrection and hence as fully incarnate human beings, just rejects the plain letter of what Albert is saying here. That doesn't mean he has to deny the value of ascetic practices or reject theosis; he doesn't. It does mean, though, that he has to deny that the highest form of flourishing is a purely intellectual one that involves no sense perception or imagination.

djr said...

On re-reading, my argument didn't come off as clear as I'd initially thought. So, to clarify: Aristotle can happily maintain that people who aren't living a life of theoretical contemplation just aren't flourishing as fully as they might and aren't achieving the highest good. For a Christian, though, the highest good and the highest level of flourishing have to involve communion with God. So, if a Christian wants to say that the ascetic contemplative life is directed at theosis as the highest good, he can't very well turn around and say that some lesser good not involving theosis leaves the person who achieves it just as well off as the ascetic contemplative. Of course, one can certainly hold that ascetic contemplation and other ways of life are capable of leading us to communion with God; but I don't know of any understanding of theosis that would allow us to say that and yet to deny that both ways of life are therefore ways of pursuing and achieving theosis.

So, the problem is not that rigorous monastic ascesis has to be either necessary or pointless; rather, it can't be a generically superior way of life.

I also wonder whether Albert's intellectualism is necessary for monastic ascesis. It sounds to me rather more Orthodox than Roman or Anglican in so far as it treats the body as some sort of inherently obstructive impediment to communion with the divine.