Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How Relation Is Crucial

How Relation Is Crucial in Human Knowledge, the Sacraments, Signs, and History

In 1970 Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book Introduction to Christianity,

Christian thought discovered the kernel of the concept of person, which describes something other and infinitely more than the mere idea of the “individual.” Let us listen once more to St. Augustine: “In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation.”1 Therein lies concealed a revolution in man’s view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality.”2

When I first came across this quotation, I was studying Thomistic philosophy at Gonzaga, and although I wasn’t a traditionalist at the time, my first reaction to this quotation was a kind of unreflective outrage. I just felt within me that Ratzinger was saying something philosophically wrong, that some sort of liberal or modernist tendency of his was polluting pure Thomistic natural philosophy, which obviously placed substance as primary and accidents as secondary. Now, a few years later, I must admit that he was right, and his insight contains a key component of the solution to the modernist crisis.

Let me turn to another thinker, quite different than Ratzinger, the Canadian philosopher John Russon, who is well known for his philosophical and historical work on Hegel. Russon states what has become of the modern man:

One of the ideas with which we are most comfortable in our everyday life is the idea that we are self-enclosed, independent beings. We strongly defend our claim to being self-possessed, insisting that “it’s my view, and I have a right to it”, or “that’s mine”, or “I’ll do what I like”. In each case, we identify ourselves as the “I” who is in charge of its own affairs, which means an “I with a unique point of view, with a unique body, and with a unique will to initiate actions. On this view, it is up to each one of us to determine who we are and what we shall do. If this is what we are really like, then tradition has little intrinsic value: if we are in full self-possession, then traditions do not bind us or direct us or generate us, but are at most amusing objects of observation.3

We see contained in this statement a summary of all modern political philosophy, such as is found in Rousseau, and philosophy of human nature. We see in it the inevitable separation between Church and state. All liberalism and modernism, the nominalism of Ockham, the immanence of Luther and the Reformers, the rationalism of Descartes are contained here. Here is the mentality of the “cafeteria Catholic,” who picks and chooses according to his internal whims. Here is the pseudo-spirituality of the New Age as for example in practitioners of The Secret, who judge the value of any pursuit with whether they feel that they are remaining in a state of “high vibration,” which is simply the subjective sense of an absence of stress and the presence of pleasure. Here is the viral popularity of the idea that one can “love Jesus and hate religion,” a notion which excludes the social, traditionally defined aspects of spirituality for the sake of an individual relationship defined by the arbitrary decisions of the individual. This is what happens when man’s real relation to reality is severed.

I believe that on a fundamental level, all of reality can be understood in terms of substances with their accidents and the various kinds of relations that exist on different levels of reality. The reason for this is that reality is a faint reflection of its Creator, and its Creator is a single Divine substance and a Trinity of relations. Hence in creation, it is substance and relation at its root. This needs fleshing out and careful qualification, all of which cannot be done in a short talk, so for today, I want to consider two main points:

1. Changes in the conceptual understanding of relation has had significant impact on the development of Western civilization.

2. The health of a society may be judged by the relations it maintains in its philosophical worldview, in politics, and in religion.

The earliest systematic discussion of relation begins with Aristotle in chapter 7 of his short work the Categories. In this work, Aristotle is seeking to establish the different ways in which reality exists by itself and can be spoken about intelligibly. He’s looking at the largest “categories” of mind-independent reality, the dimensions that cannot be reduced to others. He arrives at his basic distinction between substances and accidents. Substances are individual, existing things. Accidents are properties or characteristics existing in substances, properties such as quantity (having a certain height or weight), quality (being a certain color), location, time, position (seated or standing), etc. One of those categories is relation.

Aristotle defined relation as being towards something else (pros ti). The Latin phrase is ad aliquid, towards something. Relations are that by which something is related to another thing.

Now how are relations related to Sacraments, knowledge, history, etc.? After Aristotle, the idea of relation is covertly imported into theological discussions about the nature of the Sacraments, which are quickly seen to be a kind of symbol or sign. Even in the New Testament, St. Paul speaks of how Baptism and the Eucharist refer not only to the effects they bring about but how they also symbolize certain aspects of Christ’s life. For example, Baptism is a symbol of participating in Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11). The Eucharist is a symbol of the unity of the Church (1 Cor. 10:17). Marriage is a symbol of the bond between Christ and the Church, His Bride (Eph. 5:22-23).

In other words, the Sacraments are signs. What is the unique nature of a sign? Origen in his commentary on the Letter to the Romans says, “A sign is a visible something that suggests the idea of another invisible thing.”4 St. Augustine defines sign in a similar manner in book 2 of De doctrina christiana: “A sign is a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses” (Signum est enim res praeter speciem, quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem uenire).5 What we see in this definition of sign is the reality of relation. Without relation, which brings one thing towards another, a sign could never bring us to another thing.

As St. Augustine and many other Church Fathers show, there are multiple relations in a Sacrament: the relation of matter to form, the relation of the sacramental rite to the spiritual effects that it causes, the relation of the sacrament to the church in general. But essential to the notion of Sacrament is that it is a sign of a certain sort. In fact, the importance of defining a Sacrament in terms of the sign led the theologian Pierre Pourrat to state, “[W]henver the definition departed from the idea of sign, it lost something of its precision.”6 It is from these theological considerations, along with debates on how God relates to creation and the nature of the Trinity, that the notions of relation and sign were further developed in the medieval era.

I will pass over the various complexities, but suffice it to say, the scholastics quickly realized that Aristotle’s account of relation was inadequate and admitted of numerous exceptions. Aristotle’s definition of relation applied to what the scholastics called “predicamental relation,” a real relation existing between two physical subjects. This tree is similar to that tree. But if the second tree were cut down, the relation would cease because there no longer is a second tree to compare to. However, the scholastics noticed at least two other forms of relations that Aristotle did not account for: relations between two mental entities, such as concepts in the mind, such as in mathematical equations, and relations between one physical entity and a mental entity, such as the knowledge of the value of a coin.

Key insights developed during the 13th century on the nature of knowledge that form the basis of realism as opposed to future epistemologies based on faulty philosophical views. The immediate object of sensory awareness is the external world. In this process, the human observer enters into multiple relations with his environment. Scholastics realized, however, that the relation between man and his environment in the process of knowledge was one more form of relation that went against Aristotle’s defintion! Nothing on the part of physical reality is modified by our coming to know it, but we change as we come to know reality; hence there is no such thing as the “right side of a column” except relative to someone viewing a column from the right side: the change is in the perceiver, not the column.

14th century nominalism changes things. Ockham begins a process sometimes called the “progressive ‘mentalization’ of sign.”7 Peter of Ailly summarizes this shift by saying that the concept is “the very act itself of knowing the thing.” This move, which flattens the process of human cognition, beginning with pre-conceptual sensation and moving to successive levels of differentiation in perception and then intellection, is precisely what leads to Descartes’ rationalism when the latter claims that “ideas are the only immediate objects of my sensory awareness” (“Sixth Meditation,” n. 6). Ockham rejects the notion that relations exist independently of the mind and without realizing it, thus cuts man off from external reality. On the other hand, Ockham strangely upholds the notion that things can be related to each other independently of the mind, the rejection of which would mean that there could be no such thing as act and potency, causality, or identity:

The intellect does nothing to bring it about that the universe is one, or that a whole is composed [of its parts], or that causes in spatial proximity [to their effects actually] cause [their effects], or that a triangle has three [sides], etc. …any more than [the intellect] brings it about that Socrates is white or that fire is hot or water cold.8

It is likely that Ockham’s involvement in the political-religious dispute between John XXII and the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria prevented Ockham from realizing the full implications and almost self-contradictory aspects of his thought. For if relations themselves are merely products of the mind, then man is immediately cut of from reality.

We come now to the second contention of mine, namely, that the health of a society may be judged by the relations that issue from its collective worldview, especially philosophical, political, and religious. The progression from late scholastic nominalism towards the principle of immanence, in which man is the source and measure of all reality, is very straightforward. Due to the severing of man and reality because of the mentalization of the sign and the reduction of relations to mere beings of reason, which are products of the mind, man can no longer be informed by external reality. He now exists on his own. Thus we return to the dawning of modern thought, the core of which is immanentism.

Ratzinger rightly noted the ever increasing emphasis or tyranny of substance in metaphysics. Descartes defined substance as a “thing that exists in such a way that it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence”9 and thus rendered substance as absolutely self-existing, without the need of God. Spinzoa in fact would notice this logical consequence of Descartes’ definition and from it develop his own philosophy of monistic pantheism. Leibniz, describing his own version of substance, called a monad, famously said that they “have no windows,” that is, no relation to external reality. He wrote:

Strictly speaking, one can say that no created substance exerts a metaphysical action or influx on any other thing.10


There is no way of explaining how a monad can be altered or changed internally by some other creature, since one cannot transpose anything in it, nor can one conceive of any internal motion that can be excited, directed, augmented, or diminished within it, as can be done in composites, where there can be change among the parts. The monads have no windows through which something can enter or leave.11

Not only man, but every substance in reality becomes increasingly isolated and cut off from each other. Every man for himself. The traditional Catholic writer Roger Buck points out that this all leads to what he calls Enlightenment Despair. He cites the poem “Aubade” (pronounced: oh-bawd) by Philip Larkin:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. […]

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

As Buck strikingly puts it, “Here is the work of a man in hell—suffering acutely from the deathly vacuum [that] materialism has generated. May God have mercy on his soul and the souls of all those afflicted by the same terrible dread, ennui and meaninglessness.”12

The late Neothomistic philosopher W. Norris Clarke, SJ, said that being naturally enters into relations with other beings because it is the means by which a being shares its “ontological richness” with another, a process necessary for the sustaining of all substances.13 Clarke along with a few other philosophers developed the insight based on St. Thomas’s metaphysics that every being in its respective manner simultaneously contains self-perfective and self-communicative dynamics.14 If it is intrinsically self-communicative, then that being is intrinsically relational; thus esse in is simultaneously and always esse ad aliud, being towards or for another, and being towards implies being from (esse ab alio). Communicativity implies the capacity for receptivity (esse ab) as a complement even if the former is not always actually attained between subjects. Receptivity, then, is a necessary condition, for without it a being could not advance towards its full development. Thus there is a micro-trinity within substance: esse in, which is the substance itself, but also esse ad and esse ab, for every finite substance comes from something else and will be the agent of different causal chains, or at least potentially can be. And the whole arrangement and relation of each substance to each is necessary for the flourishing of all finite being, at least when all is properly ordered according to their natures. Of course, given the fallen state of creation, this doesn’t always attain, but its potential remains rooted in the natures of things, which are both existing in themselves as a unity and existing towards others as a relation.

The recovery of the universality and import of relations not only in abstract metaphysics but in day-to-day relations, in religion, in politics is an essential task for Catholics. We say that man is a microcosm of the universe, but we must also see how man is a microcosm of the Trinity, and when in a state of grace, he actually contains the Trinity and stands in a supernatural relation with the Trinity, a relation that all men are called to by the mercy of God. Virtue, prayer, and the proper formation of the intellect all orient man back into reality and establish him more and more firmly in relation to his end, which perfects him. If civilization is the fruit of the habitual orientation of a society in right relations with God, each other, and each man to himself, then it is the re-establishment of these right relations that will restore civilization.

This leads us to the importance of tradition. Tradition is the means by which each generation is related to the past, to the intellectual and cultural riches of the past, and from this relation to properly orient ourselves to the future. And here also is the importance of Sacred Tradition. We defend Sacred Tradition because it is the only sure means to come into a proper relationship towards God, and by means of which save our souls as St. Ignatius put it at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises. Maintaining right relations in the present depends on following the sound wisdom and accumulated knowledge of the past, which forms the intellect and guides it to maintain a proper perspective of reality as it enters the future.


1 St. Augustine, De Trinitate, 5.5.6.

2 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (New York, NY: Herder & Herder, 1970), 132, 137.

3 John Russon, “Hegel and Tradition,” in Hegel and Tradition: Essays in Honour of H. S. Harris, ed. by Michael Baur and John Russon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 3, quoted in John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 658.

4 Origen, In epist. ad Rom., 4.2.

5 St. Augustine, De doctrina christiana,

6 Pierre Pourrat, Theology of the Sacraments: A Study in Positive Theology (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1910), 36.

7 Stephan Meier-Oeser, “Medieval Semiotics,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 28 Jan. 2017.

8 William of Ockham, Ordinatio I, d. 30, q. 1 in Opera Theologica iv, 316-317.

9 René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, ed. Jonathan Bennett, http://www.ahshistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/descprin.pdf, I.51.

10 Leibniz, Primary Truths (1689), A 6.4:1647/AG 33.

11 Leibniz, Monadology, n. 7, G VI 607: AG 213-214.

12 Roger Buck, Cor Jesu Sacratissimum (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 36.

13 Cf. Norris Clarke, “Person, Being, and St. Thomas,” Communio 19 (Winter 1992), 605.

14 Cf. W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

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