With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Limits of Idealism for Christian Thought

Idealism is a rich term that signifies a varied approach to thought and being. In Plato, for example, it named that aspect of his system that posited a greater reality to the Ideas than to the things in the world. Plotinus and his posterity would amplify this so much so that matter was considered, in itself, evil.

Augustine's inward turn - a largely unprecedented move in Christian thought - was an heir to the idealist tradition that preceded him. If the Ideas are the most real phenomenon that confront the human mind, then it is a small second step to enter that mind and explore the divine presence within. This interiority would influence a whole lineage of thinkers from Anselm, to Albertus Magnus, to Aquinas, Cusanus, Ficino, and many others.

In Modernity, especially after Descartes and Kant, idealism is taken in a slightly different direction, at once embodying a return of sorts to ancient idealism - in its attempt to "free" itself from its Christian doctrinal fetters - as well as instituting a degree of novelty insofar as it saw reality as a subjective union of all things.

Idealism, we might say, emphasizes the priority of mind over being, thought over things, seeing in the human mind and thought a power to better the world. Looking around today, one can see so much of the good that has been brought about from this kind of thinking.

But Idealism harbors within itself a dangerous temptation that has lured even the greatest of its proponents. This danger is best understood when idealism is contrasted with its 'other,' which for lack of any working term, we will call 'extra-mental realism'. Simply put, extra-mental realism maintains that the world of things is the most advantageous starting point for thought. This is because, as prior to thought, the extra-mental world provides to the mind all its resources. Aristotle is perhaps the best known advocate of this approach, and his influence has been equally widespread.

The dangerous temptation in any idealism can be summed up in one word: absolutization. It is quite a common step for the idealist to absolutize an idea so much that the idea is judged to be real. Plato's world of forms is one example: he maintained that universal forms, which accounted for the unity of any number of similar entities, had a real existence somehow independent of the many entities through which that universal appeared. Another example is Plotinus's One. In this case, the idea of unity is absolutized into a first principle and used as the norm for measuring all other principles. Voluntarism, which absolutized the will emphasizing divine volition, is yet another example of this.

Now, for the extra-mental realist, there is no temptation to absolutize since in the world of things, nothing presents itself as absolute. The extra-mental realist does recognize that somehow there are absolutes, but he is cautious about circumscribing them in an idea. Since the idealist moves among the limitless character of his ideas, there is no restraint on the impulse to absolutize. And here is where we see its limits for Christianity.

All idealism in one way or another begins with the absolutizing of an idea, which cannot be done without implicating – knowingly or unknowingly – a positive conceptualization of that which is absolutized. Even in the case of Plotinus’s One, there is the absolutization of unity, which must first be conceived in a positive fashion before undergoing its absolutization. Christian thought in contrast adopts a position of agnosticism; there is no question that God is a unity beyond all unities, but it is for precisely this reason that we cannot absolutize our idea of unity – Divine Unity is the archetype of all unity, and this is not available for our conceptualization.

The most we can say with respect to the absoluteness of God's unity is that the meaning and nature of this unity can only be more and more illuminated inasmuch as God’s own self-disclosure provides glimpses. Thus, the impulse to absolutize our idea of God's unity is tempered by the patient contemplation of how this is revealed in and through extra-mental reality. There is an unknowing that will always move in concert with this contemplation when patience is involved - patience is required when dealing with the ambiguity, the unknown, the over-intelligible.

Idealism posits no such unknowing, even if, as in the case of Plotinus, unknowing, the way of negation - the apophatic method - is posited as a method for justifying the absolutization.
Plotinus's One will always only be a projection of the human idea of unity through the lens of absolutism, generating a false god. In this case, the apophatic approach is enlisted not to establish the truth of the One but rather the contours of the projected idea. Why? Because the apophaticism is posterior to the already assumed idea of what exactly constitutes absolute unity. And so in the end, the apophatic move opens the door to a nihilism inasmuch as it must negate even itself as it slowly comes to realize that the One it is trying to illuminate is nothing but an idea projected from the human mind.

Christian thought, of course, also employs an apophatic method. But where this is found properly used (e.g., Dionysius, Aquinas, et al.) it is always done in light of an extra-mental realist reception of divine self-disclosure. This is one reason why the Plotinian One never became identified as the Christian God - it was not rooted in the real. And this is why idealism, for all its value, is limited in its adoption by Christian thought.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


  • At 2/20/2010 7:46 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I just have a minor comment for now, and it is a side point (of course absolutism is a danger, but I would say it is a danger not just with idealism --different forms of absolutism are possible, with idealism being more Promethean and monistic). But as for the minor point, it is on Plotinus - and probably something you know but again, for the sake of ease, didn't deal with it. That is the fact there is a great debate as to his view of evil and matter. Was he consistent? Did he change and develop his thought? Many, and I fall into this group, think he did change, and his work against the Gnostics turned him to be nuanced and to no longer consider matter as evil per se.

  • At 2/23/2010 2:03 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 2/23/2010 2:05 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I would never claim expertise on Plotinus, but I am at the tail end of his Enneads, which I've read cover to cover.
    As I understand it, his claim that matter is evil needs to be evaluated outside of a moral context. The question is not so much whether he changed his position, but what exactly does he mean by evil?

    For him, that which is generated to the furthest limit from the One, and is, consequently, as far from the One as could be, is what he calls 'evil'. As furthest from the One, it is also furthest from the Good and so is its "opposite" (though in a qualified way, of course). Based on this, and based on his understanding of the various hypostases emanated from the One, he concludes that since it is the most resistant to form, matter is evil.
    So while we today associate the word evil with moral evil (malum poenae) I think that Plotinus is using it in a metaphysical, even idealist, sort of way. It is evil because it is the last in the chain of emanation.

    As to whether or not he changed his views, I can't say. Judging from the Enneads, so far (I have about 5 tractates in the final Ennead left) I don't see any reason to believe he rescinded his views. Though, as I am noting here, I do think his thought may evolve with respect to how he understands evil and its place in the Nous.

  • At 2/25/2010 11:29 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    While I think you are right in highlighting the general negative view of matter in Plotinus, and it is because of "low of chain" because of its association with "negation of being," nonetheless, I think authors like J.M. Rist are right in highlighting that Plotinus did see the moral question after his contact with the Gnostics. But you are right in saying it is not meant to be a moral question (per se).


Post a Comment

<< Home