Thanksgiving

What do we have to give thanks for? As St. Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The question is of course rhetorical. You have nothing that you did not receive; only the first cause could have something without receiving it from another.

This is related to the virtue of humility, which consists largely in the recognition that one is neither the first cause nor the ultimate end, together with the implications that follow from the fact that one is not these things. I might write something on this in detail at a later time.

Marcion of Pontus

Marcion of Pontus, at the end of the first century AD, considering that Jesus proposed to improve on the Old Testament, and considering the nature of some of the content found in the Old Testament, proposed a radical break between the New and Old Testaments. His writings are lost, but descriptions of his theory remain. St. Irenaeus says in Against Heresies:

Cerdo was one who took his system from the followers of Simon, and came to live at Rome in the time of Hyginus, who held the ninth place in the episcopal succession from the apostles downwards. He taught that the God proclaimed by the law and the prophets was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the former was known, but the latter unknown; while the one also was righteous, but the other benevolent.

Marcion of Pontus succeeded him, and developed his doctrine. In so doing, he advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and the prophets, declaring Him to be the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself. But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judæa in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Cæsar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judæa, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator. Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than are those apostles who have handed down the Gospel to us, furnishing them not with the Gospel, but merely a fragment of it. In like manner, too, he dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetical writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord.

Similarly, Tertullian says in his work Against Marcion,

The heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods, like the twin Symplegades of his own shipwreck: One whom it was impossible to deny, i.e. our Creator; and one whom he will never be able to prove, i.e. his own god. The unhappy man gained the first idea of his conceit from the simple passage of our Lord’s saying, which has reference to human beings and not divine ones, wherein He disposes of those examples of a good tree and a corrupt one; how that the good tree brings not forth corrupt fruit, neither the corrupt tree good fruit. Which means, that an honest mind and good faith cannot produce evil deeds, any more than an evil disposition can produce good deeds. Now (like many other persons now-a-days, especially those who have an heretical proclivity), while morbidly brooding over the question of the origin of evil, his perception became blunted by the very irregularity of his researches; and when he found the Creator declaring, I am He that creates evil, Isaiah 45:7 inasmuch as he had already concluded from other arguments, which are satisfactory to every perverted mind, that God is the author of evil, so he now applied to the Creator the figure of the corrupt tree bringing forth evil fruit, that is, moral evil, and then presumed that there ought to be another god, after the analogy of the good tree producing its good fruit. Accordingly, finding in Christ a different disposition, as it were— one of a simple and pure benevolence — differing from the Creator, he readily argued that in his Christ had been revealed a new and strange divinity; and then with a little leaven he leavened the whole lump of the faith, flavouring it with the acidity of his own heresy.

He had, moreover, in one Cerdon an abettor of this blasphemy—a circumstance which made them the more readily think that they saw most clearly their two gods, blind though they were; for, in truth, they had not seen the one God with soundness of faith. To men of diseased vision even one lamp looks like many. One of his gods, therefore, whom he was obliged to acknowledge, he destroyed by defaming his attributes in the matter of evil; the other, whom he laboured so hard to devise, he constructed, laying his foundation in the principle of good. In what articles he arranged these natures, we show by our own refutations of them.

Apart from theological problems with asserting the existence of multiple gods, a major problem with this theory is that it is contrary to Jesus’s own words about himself, as when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Consequently, as Irenaeus says in the quoted passage, it was necessary for Marcion to eliminate a great deal from his canon of Scripture. Of the Gospels, he accepted only that of Luke, and had to do a great deal of editing to make it conform to his opinion. He did the same thing with the epistles of St. Paul.

Earlier we quoted Newman on Protestantism:

Meanwhile, before setting about this work, I will address one remark to Chillingworth and his friends:—Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

According to Newman, if you wish to take seriously the religion proposed by Christ and the Apostles, you have to take seriously the Christianity of the first, second, and third centuries, which leads right to the requirement that you take seriously the Christianity of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, and so on. Taking this process seriously without inserting some radical break means accepting medieval Christianity, the Council of Trent, and Catholicism. To the degree that Newman is right, in order to be a Protestant one must insert some radical break into history. In this sense, Marcion could be said to be one of the original Protestants. Just as the reformers said, “Look at how corrupt the Church of Rome is, we need a real break from that,” Marcion said, “Look at how corrupt the Old Testament is, we need a real break from that.”

There is a similar problem with both attempted ruptures. Christ fully accepted the Old Testament, and in fact says that “the scripture cannot be annulled,” so rejecting the Old Testament means rejecting the religion of Christ. Similarly, the Protestant rejection of Catholicism implies rejecting historical Christianity, which likewise implies rejecting the religion of Christ.

Scripture on Sin and Death

According to the account of the fall in Genesis, one of the main effects of sin, perhaps the principal effect, was death. God assigns death as the reason that man should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” After Adam’s sin, chapter 3 ends with man’s exclusion from the garden and therefore from the tree of life:

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

If you take Scripture as a whole and ask, “What is it about?”, one reasonable answer would be, “Sin, death, and overcoming them.” Thus we have the account here where sin and death originate, basically at the very beginning of the Bible. And the last chapter of the last book of the Bible begins thus:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The tree of life has ultimately been restored to mankind. St. John adds a final warning:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The worst thing that can happen to you is to be deprived of a share in the tree of life.

It would be easy to show that this theme runs through Scripture from beginning to end. Thus for example Deuteronomy 30 concludes:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Here we see that fidelity to God leads to life, or to overcoming death, while infidelity leads to death. But this is a very imperfect overcoming of death, since at most one can “live long in the land,” and one still dies in the end. Consequently the book of Ecclesiastes complains,

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.

Later, he points out that doing good and doing evil appear to make no difference at all in the end:

Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

In the New Testament, St. Paul gives a theological account of overcoming death:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

One might understand many of these things in reference to a spiritual life, but in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes clear that a true overcoming of death requires a bodily resurrection:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We could many more indications of the same thing. The Bible as a whole can be seen as an account of the origin of death and of how it is to be overcome.

Genesis on the Fall

Given that the account of the creation and fall of man is not in a historical genre, what does the account intend to say about the world?

There are two ways in which an account like this can be taken. In one way, it would simply be a guess about the nature and origins of humanity. Taken in this way, it would present a possibility, but not claim that it is definitely the case.

The Catholic Church understands the text in a second way, namely as presenting the same possibility, but also as claiming that this possibility is actual. Thus the Catechism states,

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This is a reasonable understanding of Genesis, even the first way is possible in principle. Taken as the Catechism takes it, Genesis would be saying that humanity existed in a more perfect state, and fell to a less perfect state due to human sin. St. Paul seems to have a similar understanding of Genesis, saying that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The text of Genesis, which should be understood as an image, presents this more perfect state as a situation where Adam and Eve are in the garden of Eden, living off the fruit of the trees, naked and unashamed, and with access to the tree of life, by which they might live forever.

The Catechism does not seem to summarize the more perfect state, but describes it indirectly, by contrasting it with the fallen state:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.

St. Thomas discusses whether the defects that resulted from sin are natural or not:

Objection 1. It would seem that death and such like defects are natural to man. For “the corruptible and the incorruptible differ generically” (Metaph. x, text. 26). But man is of the same genus as other animals which are naturally corruptible. Therefore man is naturally corruptible.

Objection 2. Further, whatever is composed of contraries is naturally corruptible, as having within itself the cause of corruption. But such is the human body. Therefore it is naturally corruptible.

Objection 3. Further, a hot thing naturally consumes moisture. Now human life is preserved by hot and moist elements. Since therefore the vital functions are fulfilled by the action of natural heat, as stated in De Anima ii, text. 50, it seems that death and such like defects are natural to man.

On the contrary, (1) God made in man whatever is natural to him. Now “God made not death” (Wisdom 1:13). Therefore death is not natural to man.

(2) Further, that which is natural cannot be called either a punishment or an evil: since what is natural to a thing is suitable to it. But death and such like defects are the punishment of original sin, as stated above (Article 5). Therefore they are not natural to man.

(3) Further, matter is proportionate to form, and everything to its end. Now man’s end is everlasting happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 5, A3,4): and the form of the human body is the rational soul, as was proved in the I, 75, 6. Therefore the human body is naturally incorruptible.

I answer that, We may speak of any corruptible thing in two ways; first, in respect of its universal nature, secondly, as regards its particular nature. A thing’s particular nature is its own power of action and self-preservation. And in respect of this nature, every corruption and defect is contrary to nature, as stated in De Coelo ii, text. 37, since this power tends to the being and preservation of the thing to which it belongs.

On the other hand, the universal nature is an active force in some universal principle of nature, for instance in some heavenly body; or again belonging to some superior substance, in which sense God is said by some to be “the Nature Who makes nature.” This force intends the good and the preservation of the universe, for which alternate generation and corruption in things are requisite: and in this respect corruption and defect in things are natural, not indeed as regards the inclination of the form which is the principle of being and perfection, but as regards the inclination of matter which is allotted proportionately to its particular form according to the discretion of the universal agent. And although every form intends perpetual being as far as it can, yet no form of a corruptible being can achieve its own perpetuity, except the rational soul; for the reason that the latter is not entirely subject to matter, as other forms are; indeed it has an immaterial operation of its own, as stated in the I, 75, 2. Consequently as regards his form, incorruption is more natural to man than to other corruptible things. But since that very form has a matter composed of contraries, from the inclination of that matter there results corruptibility in the whole. In this respect man is naturally corruptible as regards the nature of his matter left to itself, but not as regards the nature of his form.

The first three objections argue on the side of the matter; while the other three argue on the side of the form. Wherefore in order to solve them, we must observe that the form of man which is the rational soul, in respect of its incorruptibility is adapted to its end, which is everlasting happiness: whereas the human body, which is corruptible, considered in respect of its nature, is, in a way, adapted to its form, and, in another way, it is not. For we may note a twofold condition in any matter, one which the agent chooses, and another which is not chosen by the agent, and is a natural condition of matter. Thus, a smith in order to make a knife, chooses a matter both hard and flexible, which can be sharpened so as to be useful for cutting, and in respect of this condition iron is a matter adapted for a knife: but that iron be breakable and inclined to rust, results from the natural disposition of iron, nor does the workman choose this in the iron, indeed he would do without it if he could: wherefore this disposition of matter is not adapted to the workman’s intention, nor to the purpose of his art. In like manner the human body is the matter chosen by nature in respect of its being of a mixed temperament, in order that it may be most suitable as an organ of touch and of the other sensitive and motive powers. Whereas the fact that it is corruptible is due to a condition of matter, and is not chosen by nature: indeed nature would choose an incorruptible matter if it could. But God, to Whom every nature is subject, in forming man supplied the defect of nature, and by the gift of original justice, gave the body a certain incorruptibility, as was stated in the I, 97, 1. It is in this sense that it is said that “God made not death,” and that death is the punishment of sin.

This suffices for the Replies to the Objections.

Basically St. Thomas is asserting that the condition of mankind was not natural in the sense of caused by nature, but it was something that would be desirable to nature. After sin, man fell basically to the level that could be caused by nature.

St. Thomas thus suggests a reason why it was fitting for man to be created in an immortal condition. He says in the cited article:

Thirdly, a thing may be incorruptible on the part of its efficient cause; in this sense man was incorruptible and immortal in the state of innocence. For, as Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19): “God made man immortal as long as he did not sin; so that he might achieve for himself life or death.” For man’s body was indissoluble not by reason of any intrinsic vigor of immortality, but by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God. This entirely agrees with reason; for since the rational soul surpasses the capacity of corporeal matter, as above explained (76, 1), it was most properly endowed at the beginning with the power of preserving the body in a manner surpassing the capacity of corporeal matter.

Understood in this way, the account in Genesis asserts at least two things: that man was created in a state above the state that could be caused by nature, because this was better, and that man fell from this state due to his sin.

C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

C.S. Lewis begins his essay on Bulverism:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

The person probably most known for making the first point, about sensation, is John Locke. He says in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,

First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: v.g. Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to insensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter, of that which was but one before; all which distinct masses, reckoned as so many distinct bodies, after division, make a certain number. These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities. To these might be added a third sort, which are allowed to be barely powers; though they are as much real qualities in the subject as those which I, to comply with the common way of speaking, call qualities, but for distinction, secondary qualities. For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay — by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before — by the same primary qualities, viz. the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

It is possible that this is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case. Aristotle says in On the Soul:

If it is true that the movement, both the acting and the being acted upon, is to be found in that which is acted upon, both the sound and the hearing so far as it is actual must be found in that which has the faculty of hearing; for it is in the passive factor that the actuality of the active or motive factor is realized; that is why that which causes movement may be at rest. Now the actuality of that which can sound is just sound or sounding, and the actuality of that which can hear is hearing or hearkening; ‘sound’ and ‘hearing’ are both ambiguous. The same account applies to the other senses and their objects. For as the-acting-and-being-acted-upon is to be found in the passive, not in the active factor, so also the actuality of the sensible object and that of the sensitive subject are both realized in the latter. But while in some cases each aspect of the total actuality has a distinct name, e.g. sounding and hearkening, in some one or other is nameless, e.g. the actuality of sight is called seeing, but the actuality of colour has no name: the actuality of the faculty of taste is called tasting, but the actuality of flavour has no name. Since the actualities of the sensible object and of the sensitive faculty are one actuality in spite of the difference between their modes of being, actual hearing and actual sounding appear and disappear from existence at one and the same moment, and so actual savour and actual tasting, &c., while as potentialities one of them may exist without the other. The earlier students of nature were mistaken in their view that without sight there was no white or black, without taste no savour. This statement of theirs is partly true, partly false: ‘sense’ and ‘the sensible object’ are ambiguous terms, i.e. may denote either potentialities or actualities: the statement is true of the latter, false of the former. This ambiguity they wholly failed to notice.

Saying the sound and color are a “potentiality” when they are not being sensed, and actualized when they are being sensed, suggests very much the same thing as Locke when he says that sensible qualities are “such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us.”

However, by using the terms of “primary” and “secondary,” and saying that sensible qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but…”, Locke suggests that there is something especially unreal about qualities such as color and odor, as Lewis mentions in his opening paragraph. This at least is a mistake on Locke’s part, since he failed to notice that there is no huge distinction between the aspects of a body that he calls “primary” and the ones that he calls “secondary.” Just as the color of an object appears differently in different lighting and so on, so a body looks larger or smaller depending on where it is situated relative to me. Likewise an elliptical object appears to have a different shape depending on my point of view. In other words, if there is reason to think that color is “nothing but the ability to look colored,” then there is an equal reason to think that shape is “nothing but the power to appear shaped.”

And I would say that both of these are true in a certain way, and false in a certain way, just as Aristotle did about the existence of white and black. They are false, if they are taken to mean that “grass is green,” is a false statement, or that is a subjective one. It is a true statement, and an objective fact about grass. They are true, if they mean that what we know about greenness is basically what we know from sensing it, and that being green means having the possibility of being sensed in this way. And the like is equally true of shape, size, quantity, hardness, and the other aspects that Locke calls primary.

C.S. Lewis is using this as a comparison with a critical analysis of people’s thought processes. Just as analyzing the causality involved in sensation can lead someone to say that sensible things don’t have an objective existence, so analyzing people’s thought processes could lead someone to believe that nothing is true. Thus he continues:

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

If being “tainted” means having causes that are not completely correlated with truth, then the true answers to Lewis’s questions are that either all, or nearly all, thoughts are tainted, and no, this does not necessarily mean that they are false. Virtually all thoughts are tainted in this sense because human beings do not usually have only a single motive for things that they choose to do, and this includes the choice to believe certain things. This need not “invalidate” the thoughts because obviously it does not guarantee that the thoughts are false.

Lewis is correct that pointing out that someone’s opinions match his desires does not prove that his opinions are false. However, we saw earlier that a person’s claim is evidence for what is claimed. This will be affected, however, by a person’s motives. If a person is motivated mostly by reasons which make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is stronger evidence. And likewise, if he is motivated mostly by things which do not make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is weaker evidence. Consequently, if I point out that such motives are a strong factor in a person’s belief, this is not a waste of time, nor is it irrelevant. It is quite relevant, because it weakens the evidence present in his claim, and consequently it becomes more likely that the thing is actually false.

Lewis continues:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

Lewis is himself engaging in something very like Bulverism here, or at least he is attempting to get others to do so. In the first place, the very invention of the name “Bulverism” is such an attempt. It has a ridiculous sound, and the only contribution it makes to the discussion is to make it appear that someone is doing something ridiculous. This is part of Lewis’s plan to “crush” Bulverism, namely by making people dismiss it out of hand, just as he says that they dismiss his positions out of hand.

Of course, as I already stated, Bulverism as defined by Lewis is indeed a bad thing. But this is not because a person’s motives are irrelevant, but because a person may be right despite his motives. And even if a person’s motives may weaken the evidence present in his claim, it would indeed be silly to think that the full response to an argument could be that the person does not have good motives relative to truth. If you are going to refute an argument, you should do that by discussing the matter of the argument. Lewis is quite right on this point.

Regarding Lewis’s last point in this paragraph, it is unlikely that many people actually had the intention to “prove that all proofs are invalid.” People really do have various motives for their beliefs, but this does not prove that their beliefs are false, nor does it show that their arguments do not work.

Lewis concludes the essay:

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

“Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes,” indicates that Lewis is confused.

Thoughts surely do have causes, and the efficient cause is generally the human will. Reasons and motives are both “why” people choose to believe things, and consequently are the formal aspect of that efficient cause, or in other words are final causes. It might seem a little strange to say that the fact that two and two make four is the final cause of my belief that if I have two shoes and acquire two more, I will have four shoes. But it only seems strange because we do not notice that final causes themselves come in varieties. And in any case, this is partly a question of framing. If I say, “I think I would have four shoes because to think otherwise would call into question that two and two make four,” then it is clear enough that my belief is for the sake of the truth that two and two make four.

Lewis fails to note the distinction between various types of causes, and so supposes that if thoughts have causes in an ordinary sense, they cannot have reasons, but this does not follow. Reasons are simply one of the causes that thoughts have, but they can have other causes at the same time.

Someone might say that this blog engages in a good deal of what C.S. Lewis calls Bulverism, and this concern is one of the “tainted thoughts” which led me to compose this post. Thus I summarize my response to this concern:

More or less all claims are affected by motives other than truth. But this is not irrelevant, because some claims are more affected by such motives than others, and to the extent that this is the case, this weakens the evidence contained in those claims. Thus I would not consider it irrelevant even if I point out someone’s motives without proving directly that he is mistaken.

Nonetheless, in practice I do not usually do this. Generally if I think that someone is wrong, I will argue this directly, and only reveal someone’s motives in addition, which even Lewis concedes can be relevant in that situation.

There is one possible additional objection, which Lewis does not formulate explicitly, but which he indicates when he says, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” The objection would be that whether he is right or wrong is “the only real issue.” So even if you first argue that someone is wrong, proceeding to discuss his motives is inappropriate, since it is no part of the issue, and it seems merely insulting.

I disagree that whether someone is right or wrong is the only real issue. As I have stated before, I do not think I really understand someone until I understand why he says what he does. And real people do not only have reasons for their beliefs, but motives as well. So in order to understand someone as well as possible, it is necessary to know not only his reasons, but also any other motives that he has.

But since people rarely notice their own motives, this suggests that I am saying that frequently people do not even understand themselves. And this is quite true, and in this way St. Paul says that some have “turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”

True and False Religion

What does it mean to say that a religion is true, or that it is false? The question is not as easy as it appears at first sight. Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christianruns up against this difficulty. In order to explain why he is not a Christian, he has to know what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

Thus Russell reduces being a Christian to believing in God, in the immortality of the soul, and that Christ was at least the best and wisest of men. Of course there are people who call themselves Christians who do not believe one or more of these things, and do not accept that you cannot call yourself a Christian without them. And other people might well give a different list. Thus for example St. Paul has his own requirements:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Thus St. Paul says that belief in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore in a general resurrection, is required. Otherwise “your faith has been in vain,” which would certainly seem to say that your religion is not true.

Of course, St. Paul is polemically exaggerating the consequences of the position of his opponents. In the first place someone could believe in the resurrection of Christ without believing in a general resurrection. Likewise, even if Christ did not rise from the dead, it does not follow of necessity that anyone’s faith would be entirely vain, but that it would be vain in some respect, since he would still profit from it in various ways, such as by belonging to a Christian community. Similarly, even if Christians have a false belief in the immortality of the soul, there would still be more pitiable people in the world.

We can learn from these two examples. Russell says that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” if you do not accept his list of three beliefs, while St. Paul says that “your faith is in vain” if you do not believe that Christ is risen. There is something common to the two. Some basic belief or beliefs are proposed, such that without these beliefs, it is not worthwhile to count yourself as a believer at all. For St. Paul, this has the form of saying that you should not bother to put your faith in Christ, while for Russell, this has the form of saying that you should not call yourself a Christian.

The basic difficulty is caused by the fact that being a Christian, considered in itself, is not a belief, but membership in a Christian community. Thus saying that “Christianity is true,” or that “Christianity is false,” ought to mean “belonging to a Christian community is true,” or that “belonging to a Christian community is false,” both of which are evidently absurd, since belonging to a community is not the kind of thing which is true or false. But since a Christian community happens to be a community of believers, we identify Christianity as a belief by saying that it is what that community believes.

But the problem is not resolved by this identification, for “what the Christian community believes” is somewhat indeterminate, since Christians believe different things. Russell and St. Paul resolve the issue in similar ways. Russell does so by saying that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” unless you believe certain things, presumably because it is wrong to deceive people about your beliefs. St. Paul does so by saying that your faith is in vain if you think that Christ did not rise from the dead, presumably meaning that it is pointless for you to belong to a Christian community.

Thus both of them are saying that unless you think that such and such is true, it is a bad idea to be a Christian, that is, to belong to a Christian community.

With this analysis we can say in general what it means to say that a certain religion is true, or that it is false. If I say that Mormonism is true, I mean that there are certain true things usually believed by Mormons, which make it worthwhile to belong to a Mormon community, given that I accept those things. Likewise, if I say that Mormonism is false, I mean that there are things believed by Mormons that would make it worthwhile to be a Mormon, if they were true, but in fact those things are false, and consequently it is not worthwhile to be a Mormon. Or more directly, I mean that there are certain things normally believed by Mormons which happen to be false, and the fact that Mormons normally believe these false things, makes it not worthwhile for me to be a Mormon.

Someone might object that this leads to relativism, since according to this analysis, it seems that a religion might be true for one person, but false for another. For example, in an interview conducted by Sergiu Hart, Robert Aumann, the author of the agreement theorem we discussed earlier, explains, among other things, why he accepts Judaism:

H [Sergiu Hart]: So that’s the Center for Rationality. I know this doesn’t belong, but I’ll ask it here. You are a deeply religious man. How does it fit in with a rational view of the world? How do you fit together science and religion?

A [Robert Aumann]: As you say, it really doesn’t belong here, but I’ll respond anyway. Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement “the earth is round.” It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn’t; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. But when you come to think of it, it is a very complex statement. What does roundness mean? Roundness means that there is a point, the “center” of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we canít get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn’t be able to get there. We certainly wouldn’t be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

Don’t get me wrong. We all agree that the earth is round. What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It’s a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people’s minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a “species.” Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say “Bob Aumann” is sitting here? Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I’ll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word “model.” Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite, orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children; you do all kinds of things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That’s the case with religion also. It doesn’t contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those two things coexist side by side without conflict.

Well, it is your way of putting it. Let me enlarge on it. The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society; it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

In short, you can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. In the eighties, copying software was considered moral by many people. The point I am making is that religion, at least my religion, is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society.

In the first part, Aumann is basically saying that science gives an idealized and approximate description of the world, rather than an exact description. In the second part he attempts to explain why he accepts Judaism, and he seems to be saying that it has little to do with the way the world is, and more to do with what is good for people. In other words, to explain it in the way we analyzed the truth of a religion, “Judaism is true” for Aumann because he believes that it is true that it is good and beautiful to observe the Sabbath, true that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws, and so on. And since these things are true it is worthwhile for him to be a member of a Jewish religious community.

You may or may not agree that the Sabbath is beautiful, and you may or may not agree that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws. But even if you do agree with these things, you probably don’t conclude that it is worthwhile for you to convert to Judaism. At the same time, you may realize that these things might well make it worthwhile for Robert Aumann to remain a Jew.

Thus our explanation seems to lead to relativism, because Judaism can be true for Aumann, but false for other people. However, there are several problems with calling this result relativism.

First of all, there was some remaining ambiguity in the way we defined the truth or falsity of a religion. Jews might normally believe certain true things, and given that Robert Aumann accepts those things, it might be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. But it is possible that Jews also normally believe certain false things, such that if Aumann knew they were false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. Thus, for example, a Christian would argue that Jews falsely believe that Christ is not the Messiah, and that if Aumann knew that this was false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, but to convert to Christianity.

Thus we could make our definition more precise by saying that a religion is true if it is worthwhile to belong to that religion even after you know the truth or falsity of all the beliefs that the members of the religion usually hold, and that it is worthwhile by reason of some of the true things that they hold.

However, this does not sufficiently answer the charge of relativism, because it would still be possible that one religion would be true for one person, and not true for another person.

For example, suppose that theism is true, but that no divine revelation has been given. If Aumann realizes this, he might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, and unreasonable to convert to Islam, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Jews and Muslims. Likewise, a Muslim, knowing the same things, might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Muslim, and unreasonable to convert to Judaism, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Muslims and Jews.

The answer in this case is that the situation simply does not imply relativism, because Aumann and the Muslim do not disagree about anything. Aumann may say, “Judaism is true,” and the Muslim may say, “Islam is true,” but when they explain what they mean and why they say it, they do not disagree with each other about any objective fact. This is no more relativism than it is relativism to admit that one person may prefer vanilla ice cream, and another person chocolate.

Thus, it is possible to mean something reasonable when saying that some religion is true, or that some religion is false. But in the end perhaps it would be better to avoid all the confusion in the first place, by following Robert Aumann’s example and simply distinguishing the question, “What is the world like?” from the question, “Is it, or would it be, good for me to belong to this community of believers?” Of course the answers to these questions are going to be related in various ways, but they are different questions.

Aristotle and the Ends of the Ages

St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:11, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” It is possible of course to interpret the “ends of the ages” and the Second Coming in another way, but St. Paul’s contemporaries probably read this text as saying that the world would end during the lifetimes of many of them. Many Christians throughout history have held a similar view, except applying it to their own time.

Aristotle believed that the world was eternal. He believed that it had existed forever, and would continue to exist forever, in much the condition it exists now, with mountains, lakes, rivers, plants, animals, and human beings. He takes note of the consequences of this position, as for example in this text from the Meteorology:

The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where there is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. But we must suppose these changes to follow some order and cycle. The principle and cause of these changes is that the interior of the earth grows an decays, like the bodies of plants and animals. Only in the case of these latter the process does not go on by parts, but each of them necessarily grows or decays as a whole, whereas it does go on by parts in the case of the earth. Here the causes are cold and heat, which increase and diminish on account of the sun and its course. It is owing to them that the parts of the earth come to have a different character, that some parts remain moist for a certain time, and then dry up and grow old, while other parts in their turn are filled with life and moisture. Now when places become drier the springs necessarily give out, and when this happens the rivers first decrease in size and then finally become dry; and when rivers change and disappear in one part and come into existence correspondingly in another, the sea must needs be affected.

Likewise, in the same book he notes that “the same opinions appear in cycles among men not once nor twice, but infinitely often.” If humanity has always existed, they must have cycled through every possible opinion, and the arts and the sciences must have existed in every conceivable state, coming to be through discovery and passing away through forgetfulness or disaster an infinite number of times.

Consequently it is impossible for Aristotle to believe that his age is the last in any special way, and yet it seems that he does so anyway, in an implicit manner. Given his opinion about the eternity of the world, he should hold that the arts and sciences of his day exist in a random incomplete state; on average each of the sciences should be about 50% of the way through its development. Instead of holding this opinion, however, in various places he seems to suggest that the arts and the sciences have basically been perfected in his day. For example, he seems to show this opinion in his history of thought in the Metaphysics. It is easier to see this by reading the whole of Book I, but there is a hint of it in statements like these:

At first he who invented any art whatever that went beyond the common perceptions of man was naturally admired by men, not only because there was something useful in the inventions, but because he was thought wise and superior to the rest. But as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility. Hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.

It is evident, then, even from what we have said before, that all men seem to seek the causes named in the Physics, and that we cannot name any beyond these; but they seek these vaguely; and though in a sense they have all been described before, in a sense they have not been described at all. For the earliest philosophy is, on all subjects, like one who lisps, since it is young and in its beginnings.

Such statements are not intrinsically inconsistent with the view that the arts and sciences have made some progress but a good deal still remains to be discovered. Nonetheless, as a whole he gives the impression that everything has been tending toward the present state of the arts and sciences as though toward completion, and it is rare to find a place where he says that some problem simply remains unsolved.

Thus one could view Aristotle’s position as suggesting implicitly that he and those of his time are the ones upon whom “the ends of the ages have come.”