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Lecture 6. The Bible on Human Nature: The Fall Comparison of Plato, Aristotle & Bible Two responses by Christians to Plato & Aristotle Boethius Introduction to Aquinas. The Fall: Genesis 2. Whether to interpret details literally (trees, fruit, serpent) - relatively unimportant.

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Lecture 6

  • The Bible on Human Nature: The Fall

  • Comparison of Plato, Aristotle & Bible

  • Two responses by Christians to Plato & Aristotle

  • Boethius

  • Introduction to Aquinas


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The Fall: Genesis 2

  • Whether to interpret details literally (trees, fruit, serpent) - relatively unimportant.

  • Knowledge of good and evil:

    • “Knowledge” seems to mean experiential, intimate (used as euphemism for sex).

    • “Good and evil” are moral categories: righteousness and wickedness.


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Variety of Interpretations

  • Some interpret the story as representing a unique, historical event. Others see it as a story about “Everyman”. (“Adam” is the common noun for human being.)

  • Among those who interpret it as a unique historical event, there are a variety of views about how much damage is done to human nature (especially, our capacity for virtue and liability to vice).


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“Original Sin”

  • The majority of commentators in ancient, medieval and early modern times take it that we have all “inherited” a morally disordered nature as a result of the fall.

  • Two key elements: concupiscence (uncontrollable desires, both sensual and ambitious), and pride (haughtiness, arrogance, self-worship).

  • Consequences listed in text focus on pain, toil and physical death.


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Psalm 139

  • God’s universal knowledge and presence.

  • Encompasses the details of conduct of each individual human being.

  • God creates each human being.

  • Possibility of divine deliverance from enemies and guidance.


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Wisdom and Proverbs 8

  • Recall: Aristotle distinguished practical wisdom (phronesis) and philosophical wisdom (sophia). God has only the latter.

  • Author of Proverbs 8 makes no such distinction: the same wisdom that enabled God to craft the world is available to guide us, enable us to live righteously.


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The Fruit of Wisdom

  • Results in riches, honor, wealth and justice.

  • But -- the fruit she gives is better than gold.

  • “Happy are those who keep to my ways.” (v. 31)

  • “He who does injury to me does hurt to his own soul; all who hate me are in love with death.” (v. 36)


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Common Ground: Plato, Aristotle & the Bible

  • The world is teleologically organized -- full of systems with built-in purpose.

  • Human nature exists and is knowable by us. (The law written on the heart -- Rom 2:14-15)

  • There are absolute, universal values, grounded in human nature.

  • Acting morally, virtuously is an indispensable component of happiness (blessedness).


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  • God (a perfect, self-sufficient, eternal intelligence) exists.

  • The order of the universe (Logos) is reflected in the rational order of human mind (logos). (Proverbs 8)

  • Humanity is the highest form of life on earth (Gen. 1,2: created in God's image, commissioned to subdue the earth).


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Common ground: the Bible and Plato only (not Aristotle) exists.

  • Human beings survive bodily death (it is uncertain what the mature Aristotle thought about this).

  • The creation & supervision of the world by a supreme intelligence (according to Aristotle, the world is eternal, uncreated).

  • One can be supremely happy, even when persecuted and mistreated, so long as one attains righteousness.


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Common ground: the Bible and Aristotle only (not Plato) exists.

  • Human beings consist of a unity of soul and body. We are not merely souls that inhabit or possess a body. (Cf. Genesis, 1:7 and 3:19; Psalm 139:13. )


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Contrasting Elements of the Biblical worldview exists.

  • It is possible for friendship and mutual love to exist between God and individual human beings.

  • Physical work (including manual labor) is a positive good, part of human happiness (Gen. 1:28, Jesus as carpenter)

  • Human beings are essentially equal before God, under God's law.


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  • Divine forgiveness and mercy are not a violation of justice and provide no license for unrighteousness. (See Romans 4:21-26).

  • The truth that God reveals in the Bible is in some conflict or tension with our "natural" knowledge. (I Corinthians 1:19-25).

  • The positive reality of evil. Evil is more than merely the lack of goodness. Evil deeds lead to an "inherited" proclivity to evil. Evil is like a cancer.


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Two reactions to philosophy from within the Biblical tradition

  • Rejectionists: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Tertullian, al-Gazzali, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Anders Nygren.

  • Synthesizers: Boethius, al-Farabi, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler


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Boethius (480-525 AD) tradition

  • Last philosophical scholar of the ancient world. Translated Aristotle’s logical works into Latin.

  • Unjustly sentenced to death as a result of political intrigue in court of Theodoric, barbarian king of Rome.

  • Wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while on death row.


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Boethius’s impact tradition

  • Boethius preserved logic, mathematics for western Europe sliding into the Dark Ages (700-1000 AD).

  • The Consolation of Philosophy became one of the most influential books in European history. Suggested a unification of Christian piety with Greek philosophy.


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Boethius: synthesizing Christianity with Plato/Aristotle tradition

  • All human beings seek happiness -- the supreme good.

  • Like drunkards, we have lost the way home and stumble into errors, identifying happiness with position, power, honor, wealth, or pleasure.

  • True happiness consists in possessing (by a kind of participation) God, who is absolute, self-sufficient goodness.


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Discussion Questions tradition

  • Why does Boethius not mention anything specifically Christian in The C of P (e.g., Jesus, the Bible, the Church)?

  • Is Boethius closer to Plato or Aristotle?

  • What common denominator recurs in all of Boethius’ refutations of false conceptions of happiness?


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False Conceptions of Happiness tradition

  • Wealth

  • Position

  • Power

  • Fame

  • Pleasure


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Crucial tests tradition

  • Does it make one self-sufficient, independent? (wealth creates dependencies, new wants, power depends on allies, supporters)

  • Can it be used for bad, even self-destructive purposes? (wealth, power -- clearly can be)

  • Is it a source of anxiety? (power, pleasure)

  • Can it have bad effects? (pleasure)


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Boethius’s Definition of True Happiness tradition

  • Once one possesses it, one has no further needs, wants, or reason for anxiety.

  • It can never be used for anything but good purposes.

  • It can never have anything but good effects.

  • It cannot be deceptive or false.


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Happiness = God tradition

  • God is the very essence of happiness.

  • If we can “possess” God, then God would fulfill every need or want, and provide perfect security.

  • God cannot be the source of evil.


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Boethius on the Simplicity of God, the Good tradition

  • Boethius draws heavily on some late (3rd c. AD) Platonists -- the Neo-Platonists, especially Plotinus.

  • According to Plotinus, the ultimate source of being is the One.

  • The One is Goodness itself, Being, Beauty, Power. These are just different names for the same, undifferentiated reality.


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Simplicity, cont. tradition

  • Consequently, for Boethius, God does not have goodness -- He is goodness itself.

  • If God merely had goodness, we would have to seek a cause or explanation of why He does.

  • Since God is goodness (and beauty and power and happiness), no such explanation is possible. God is the First Cause.


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Boethius & Aristotle tradition

  • To a degree, Aristotle would agree with Boethius: the intellectual apprehension and comprehension of God is the highest good for human beings.

  • However, Aristotle did not believe that human beings were capable of a permanent “possession” of God. So, human happiness is inherently insecure, fleeting.


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A Natural Pointer to the Supernatural? tradition

  • Boethius argues, in effect, that the fact that human beings can be dissatisfied with any good obtainable in this life points to the reality of a further reality.

  • Our ultimate aim is to become divine - not intrinsically but by “participation”.

  • Is this merely wishful thinking?


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Introduction to Aquinas tradition

  • Europe emerging from Dark Ages (700-1000)

  • Scientific works of Aristotle: Byzantium ->Islamic world -> Spain ->Jews ->Western Europe

  • Averroes (ibn Rushd), Maimonides -- 12th c. Spain


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  • St. Albert the Great -- Paris, Cologne, 13th century. Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Roger Bacon (Oxford) -- revived Platonic application of mathematics to science

  • Thomas Aquinas -- student of Albert. Born near Naples. Joined Dominican order. Kidnapped by brothers.


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Structure of Revived use of observation & experimentation.Summa Theologiae

  • Work of theology. Appeals to both theological authorities (Bible, Augustine) and to natural reason.

  • Encompasses the conclusions of philosophy.

  • Organized by questions.


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Typical question Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Is ....? (the question)

  • It seems.... (thesis)

  • [Several plausible arguments, numbered]

  • On the contrary,.... (antithesis)

  • Response [Sets out Thomas's opinion -- typically, agrees with the antithesis, or accepts both as partially true.]

  • [The numbered plausible arguments are rebutted or corrected, one by one.]


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The Natural and the Supernatural Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Natural

    • Imperfect happiness (“felicity”)

    • Can be attained by our own, natural powers

    • Can be understood scientifically

  • Supernatural

    • Perfect happiness (“beatitude”)

    • Requires God’s “grace” (special assistance)

    • Can be understood only by “faith”


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Natural Philosophy & Supernatural (Revealed) Theology Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Philosophy (including “natural theology”) is competent to understand the natural order. So, Aristotle is a reliable guide to imperfect happiness, and the structure of the cosmos.

  • Understanding the supernatural requires special revelation (through prophets, inspired Scriptures).


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Human Nature Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • For Aquinas, human nature (the essence of humanity) encompasses both levels.

  • We are “naturally supernatural”. We cannot be fully satisfied with any natural good.

  • Our capacity to grasp the idea of infinity or perfection bears witness to our supernatural end. (Cf. Boethius)


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Theory of Mind and Knowledge Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Aquinas is a developmental empiricist: all human knowledge begins with the use of the 5 senses, by which we come to know our physical environment.

  • We start with the natural sciences, and then move to metaphysics and natural theology.

  • Natural theology tells only that God (a First Cause) exists. It does not tell us much about the nature of God.


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Not a Strict, Absolute Empiricist Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • 1. Mind is not a blank slate: it brings specific, pre-determined powers and potentialities to the business of learning through the use of the senses.

  • 2. Knowledge is always the product of the joint operation of the senses and the intellect.

  • 3. Ultimately, we can attain some (very limited) knowledge of things beyond the range of our senses.


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The Structure of the Soul Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • Rational

    • Intellect

      • Speculative

      • Practical

    • Will (rational appetite)

  • Sub-rational

    • Senses

    • Bodily appetites

      • Concupiscible & Irascible


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The Sub-rational Soul Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • The senses give us information about the environment.

  • The appetite propels us to certain apparent goods or away from certain evils: anger and fear (irascible) and desires for food, water, warmth, sex (concupiscible).


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Rational Soul Revived use of observation & experimentation.

  • The theoretical (or "speculative") intellect strives toward truth and understanding. It begins with the information delivered by the senses, and "abstracts" universal laws from this data.

  • The practical intellect deliberates about what is the best course of action. It begins with inclinations provided by the appetites, but corrects and supplements them from a rational assessment of a plan of life.


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Essence vs. Accident -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.

  • What a thing is most fundamentally, versus what a thing just happens to be.

  • An oak tree (essence) vs. a hammock hanger (accident).

  • A human being (essence) vs. a source of household income (accident).


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The signs or criteria of essences -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.

  • 1. Essences correspond to a shared nature, that can be the subject of scientific investigation.

  • We can investigate the nature of humans or oak trees, not of hammock-supports or income-sources.


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  • 2. Essences provide a non-arbitrary -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.principle for dividing the world into distinct, countable individuals.

  • Contrast: how many human beings are in the room? vs. How many income sources are in my brokerage account?


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  • 3. Essences provide a non-arbitrary -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.principle for identity through time.

  • If I disassemble and re-assemble a wooden hammock support, is it the same support? Who cares?

  • Is X the same person as Y? This matters.


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Function/use -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.

  • The function of a thing is part of its essence, the use we put it to is an accident.

  • The dog's function is to be loyal and trainable, its use is to herd sheep.


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“Double” Truth -- but the will is needed to effect the transition from thought and feeling to action.

  • Some 13th century philosophers (including Siger of Brabant) were accused of holding a theory of “double” truth: that the same thing could be theologically true but scientifically false.

  • Aquinas vigorously opposed this distinction: philosophy and theology give us two ways of knowing the truth. Truth itself is one, indivisible.


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