Book review: The Natural Desire to See God

The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and his Interpreters
by Lawrence Feingold (2010)

The relation between man’s natural and supernatural ends is what Catholics argue about when we’re not arguing about sex.  God is both ends, but apprehended and enjoyed differently.  Our natural end is to know and love God in a way proportioned to our natures (unassisted by grace), as the first cause.  Our supernatural end is the beatific vision of God’s essence, a knowledge and intimacy of which we are naturally incapable but to which we can be supernaturally elevated.  Hereafter, the “vision of God” or “seeing God” will refer exclusively to the latter.  We naturally desire our natural end.  We desire our supernatural end via the infused virtue of hope.  That much is uncontroversial.  The tricky question is whether we are able to naturally desire our supernatural end.  Saint Thomas believes that we can.  But if so, then is the vision of God not really supernatural; is man’s natural end therefore inadequate to his nature.  Thomas cannot admit either without contradicting himself.  Thus was the question bequeathed to future Thomists:  how can an end be both naturally desired and not proportionate to our nature?

In fact, Aquinas does provide the answer, but resolving all tensions requires a number of subtle distinctions left to later generations.  Aquinas derives our natural desire to see God from our curiosity about causes.  From it, we infer the existence of a first cause, and we naturally recognize that it would be good to understand this cause in its essence.

There is a key distinction at work here between two types of natural desires:  innate and elicited.  Innate appetites are internally driven and always present.  Necessarily, such desires are proportioned to our nature; one who totally understood human nature would understand the objects of these desires (at least, understand them in the sense that they are desired).  Elicited desires are desired when presented to our attention.  An elicited desire is natural if we will spontaneously desire it when it we think about it, although there is no guarantee we will ever think about it.  For example, it is possible for us to innately desire happiness without innately desiring God, even though He is in fact the only source of ultimate happiness, since we don’t innately know that.  An elicited desire need not be proportioned to our nature.

One notices that the natural desire to see God is always described in a very intellectualist way, as a way of satisfying human curiosity.  Do Thomists ignore all of the other aspects of our supernatural end–the supreme happiness of heaven, our adoption as children of God, etc?  No, but that’s part of the point.  The natural desire for our supernatural end only recognizes that end under one aspect.  A Christian with the virtue of hope can desire God more comprehensively as well as more ardently.

Because our beatitude does not correlate to any natural activity, the Thomists insisted on classifying it as an “obediential potency” of human nature rather than a “passive potency”, an “obediential potency” being the capacity of a subject to have something miraculously done to it.  During the 20th century, many accused this classification of making the vision of God wholly “extrinsic” to our nature.  However, Feingold stresses that the vision of God is a specific obediential potency of human nature.  Not just anything is capable of supernaturally receiving the beatific vision, but only intellectual creatures.  Such is their greatest dignity.

Feingold discusses a number of well-known scholastics:  Scotus, Cajetan, Banez, Suarez.  The real hero of the book turns out to be a commentator on Aquinas I had never heard of:  Francis Sylvester of Ferrara,  master general of the Dominicans after Cajetan.  Poor Cajetan’s reputation has diminished greatly over the last century due to Henri de Lubac’s attacks.  Readers will be gratified by Feingold’s careful investigation of whether Cajetan misrepresents Aquinas and his vindication of the unfairly-maligned theologian.

Overall, one comes away from this work impressed with the application of scholastic theology to this problem.  In this case, at least, the scholastic habit of carefully drawing distinctions and trying very hard to save revered thinkers from contradicting themselves and each other seems to have paid off.  In more sharply distinguishing man’s two ends, the theologians can show more clearly how closely the two are related.

3 Responses

  1. Thoroughly unrelated: I think Adrian Vermeule’s Twitter would be a good addition to your sidebar. He’s a Harvard law prof of constitutional and administrative law who converted to Catholicism. First Things did an interview with him were they asked for three books worth reading on constitutionalism and his choices were works by de Maistre, John Henry Newman, and Carl Schmitt. Nice to know the counter-enlightenment dream is being kept alive in, of all places, Harvard Law. He sometimes writes important pieces and links them on his Twitter, but sadly he apparently has no blog.

    Intended to mention him next time you said something related to law, but figure now is a good time to shout him out for the blog.

  2. Thank you. This fellow sounds very promising. But, darn, why does he have to be using Twitter?

  3. […] more important than what they do know.  They don’t know other essences.  Recall the scholastic dispute about man’s natural desire for beatitude.  An ongoing concern was that it must not be […]

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