The First Way

A COMMENT ON SIR ANTHONY KENNY'S INTERPRETATION
OF ST THOMAS' PROOF OF GOD'S EXISTENCE

D G Boland © 2000

In 1967-8 the now Sir Anthony Kenny gave a lecture course at Oxford on the five ways of St. Thomas. In it he proposed to establish what Aquinas meant by the five most celebrated of the proofs he gave and to evaluate the arguments critically. (This course of lectures subsequently appeared as a book, The Five Ways, first published in 1969 by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, later by University of Notre Dame Press, edition 1980). It is clear from his comments at the start of his Introduction and as he goes through each proof that he does not believe the arguments are conclusive.

Because of his understanding of the traditions of both thomistic and analytical philosophy he would appear to be well placed to interpret the proofs and explain them to modern thinkers. However, on examining his treatment I find that his understanding of the language of St. Thomas is not as profound as one would have hoped. As a result I fear that he succumbs to the general tendency of modern thinkers to be condescending of St. Thomas' thought and thus often miss the real point of the arguments.

As an example of this, in relation to the First Proof by way of movement, he comments (p. 8): "there is reason to believe that St. Thomas was misled, at a crucial point of his argument, by the double sense of the Latin 'movetur' (= Eng. 'is moved')". This double sense arises from the fact, as he notes, that the passive form in Latin serves both for the passive voice and for the sense that abstracts from the active and passive voice (a sort of middle voice). This middle voice has a separate form of its own in some languages. But Latin uses the passive form; in English we use the active form, in French they use the reflexive. Thus we say: "The butter cuts well", by which we do not intend to refer to the active voice, for butter cuts nothing, but to the mere fact of the (motion of) cutting occurring in the butter. So we would say that a car drives well. In Latin, however, it would rather be put as that the car is driven well and in French that the car drives itself well. The sense intended is merely a comment about the performance of the car, not about anyone actually driving it, as would be the case if we said that Jack Brabham drives well.

When translating St. Thomas'; "Omne movetur ab alio movetur", we tend to be very literal. Hence we often see this translated: "Whatever is moved is moved by another", when it could be "Whatever moves is moved by another". To retain the same double sense of the verbs used we should say, "Whatever moves, another moves", or to change the verb: "Whatever cuts (well) is cut by another, or a cutter cuts". The too literal translation of the Latin proposition has the appearance in English of not saying much, for the passive form has only the sense of the passive (which is the correlative of the active), and so the second part of the proposition appears to simply repeat the first part. But the argument can be from movement pure and simply considered, so the point of the statement is that the middle voice (used in the first part) "movetur" or "moves", though a valid logical abstraction, when referred to its real context, necessarily implies a real (extrinsic) agent (as asserted in the second part). That is to say movement in reality, i.e. in the concrete, involves something receiving the movement (patient) and something else causing the movement (agent). To these correspond the passive and active voices of the relevant verb. We can abstract the verb, e.g. in the expression "the knife cuts the butter", and consider "cuts" by itself, and say "cutting is a kind of motion". But this is plainly an abstraction. Similarly when we say "the motor runs well" we are not considering all that goes to the making of the motor run. Yet it won't run at all if the starter is not activated. So we can be sure that if a motor runs something has set it in motion.

The crucial point to which Kenny later comes (on p.19) is that St. Thomas has overlooked the fact that "If a thing cannot be moved by itself, it does not follow that it must be moved by something else. Why cannot it just be in motion [middle voice], without being moved by anything [active voice implied], whether by itself or by anything else?" But, St. Thomas' argument accommodates the interpretation of "movetur" in the middle voice just as well as in the passive. For not only does "being moved" in the passive sense necessarily imply an agent (by another) but also the fact of movement in something (expressed by the middle voice) when read according to the demands of its existence in reality requires an agent distinct from itself. He asks: "Why cannot it just be in motion?" One might as well ask why cannot butter just be in scission.

It is true that we must not be distracted by logical considerations and linguistic conventions, and look rather at the real relationships between things. It seems, however, that it is Kenny who has done this in this case, not St. Thomas. It would indeed appear to be an occupational hazard of those who indulge in analytic or linguistic philosophy. It must be said though that the modern conception of movement in newtonian or physico-mathematical terms does lend itself to thinking about these proofs in terms of logical abstractions so that we miss the real causal implications.

There is much else that Kenny has to say in criticism of St. Thomas' proofs for the existence of God. But his more substantive criticisms seem to me to be affected by much the same disdain for the linguistic and logical accomplishments of Aquinas and Aristotle. Like many others he is also too ready to latch onto the examples drawn from the physics of Aristotle and stay at the physical level. He thus misses the logical and metaphysical implications of the arguments as such. For example, he dismisses St. Thomas' statement that an agent causing a movement or change must in some way possess the quality or reality it gives (e.g. heat) to the recipient, pointing out "a kingmaker need not himself be a king, and it is not dead men who commit murders." One can hardly credit the intellectual crassness of such a criticism, but one must say that it goes with the literalism and univocal thinking of analytical philosophy. No apparent effort is made to understand Aquinas in the terms of his own philosophical standpoint, but he is interpreted according to the linguistic and logical standards of another philosophy. A short lesson in St. Thomas's philosophy of analogy and the difference between forms and their privations would have prevented Kenny from making such silly comments.

Generally, his criticisms do not get much above the naturalistic or "common sense" point of view. He thus does not seem to be able to distinguish "immobility" from "rest" in the sense of being motionless or inactive (on page 13). This is one way in which the opposite of motion may be taken, namely as the absence of passive movement or change interpreted in purely physical terms. But what the argument refers to is a (higher) state of activity that does not require to be moved to make something else change. A passing acquaintance with St. Thomas' thought would reveal that the immobility of the First Mover is not that of a being that is simply "unmoved". One may gather the extent of the misconception by, for example, reference to someone thinking that what is called "priceless" equates with something valueless. There is an order of things above price as well as below. The immobility that Aquinas opposes to motion is in fact an activity that transcends the physical world of movement.

There is much else about the proofs that comes in for criticism by Sir Anthony Kenny but it would not be profitable to attempt to deal individually with each. Many of his criticisms are unanswerable given the limited viewpoint from which he is arguing. But rarely does he come to grips with what Aquinas or Aristotle is actually intending. I have no doubt that he was attempting to be fair to Aristotle and St. Thomas and that he is more familiar with their writings than most. But he, like many, would benefit from due deference to Aristotle and Aquinas as masterful thinkers in logic and metaphysics. If we find their arguments or conclusions to be weak or inconclusive, when they evidently believed that they are strong and rationally demonstrative, we should rather look more closely at our understanding of their true thought before accusing them of logical fallacies. Too readily also do modern lesser thinkers put down Aristotle's and Aquinas' perceived "simplistic" thinking to an acceptance of an archaic astronomy.

D G Boland © 2000


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 6 (2000).
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