Thinking without a Graven Image: Aristotle on the First Law of Moses

Thinking without a Graven Image: Aristotle on the First Law of Moses

In the 20th chapter of Exodus we read “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image (pesel or eidōlon) or any likeness (temunah, homoioma) (Ex 20:1-4).” Doctors of the Church and iconoclasts alike have used this text and others like it to warn against the dangers of the ‘theological imagination.’ When man imagines God, so the argument goes, he tends to create monsters. Thus, rather than let man imagine God in His image, we ought to let God image (or re-image for that matter) mankind in His. Such an order captures nicely the contrast in the Bible between an idol and an icon. The former, the products of man’s imaginings, are peseliim or the εἴδωλα of strange gods. The latter image, however, is none other than man himself, the tselem elohiim or εἴκων θεοῦ of Genesis 1:27. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Gn 1:27). What need have we, therefore, of any other image?

This question seems to me a helpful way of framing Aryeh Kosman’s article Divine Thought. For Kosman claims that for Aristotle thought is man’s most divine activity. It is perhaps “the clearest icon we have of the being of the divine principle whose essential nature is activity, and on which depend heaven and earth.” But how do we know that this icon isn’t in fact a conceptual idol, the work of human imagination? Isn’t it dangerous to assert that the Divine is thinking because our thinking is divine? Are we not at risk, as Freurbach so eloquently put it, of turning theology into anthropology? Indeed, Kosman goes so far as to say that the grammar of statements like “God is thought” or “God is love” should be analyzed as “thought or love are divine.” He writes:

We may feel compelled, by a logical or even theological fastidiousness, to distinguish carefully statements about God’s attributes from statements about the divinity (or some such modern demythologized analogue to divinity) of such attributes. But there are moments in our discourse—even for those of us with thin liturgical lives—when we recognize the near-interchangeability of ‘God is compassionate’ and ‘compassion is divine.’ But it remains hard to know how to negotiate these matters, and how to understand the meaning of the tragedian’s ‘Love is a great god, or ‘Thought is a great god’, of John’s ‘God is Love,’ of Aristotle’s ‘God is thought.’ The idea I am suggesting is that their grammar must be understood in terms of the grammar of ‘thought or love is divine.’ It was in this way that Cicero read Euripides’ fragment: ‘therefore, the soul, as I say, is divine (divinus est), or as Euripides dared to say, is a god (deus est). The path of proper understanding for these sayings must take us through love and thought themselves, but love and thought revealed, to use Bonaventure’s pregnant phrase, as vestigia dei.

It is important that Kosman stresses the near-interchangeability of such propositions. Surely there is a difference, subtle to be sure, between Aristotle’s claim that “thinking is most divine (θειότατον),” and a New York Times columnist’s near theophanous encounter with a Burgundian pinot noir. In the words of that inspired bourgeois prophet, the experience was “simply divine.” “To die for,” as another zealot put it in the comment section. Not being an expert in comparative religion, I would still venture that Aristotle’s attribution of divinity to thinking seems to be the more promising theonym of the two. For God may indeed be thinking thinking thinking or, if Simplicius’ testimony about Aristotle is to be believed, something beyond even that. In either case, thinking’s status as a “clear icon” would be vindicated inasmuch as it would be the clearest intimation we have in this life of that infinitely simple and pure Act at the ground of Being. However, lest one turn thinking into a conceptual idol, Aristotle’s image needs to be purged of its human imperfections. Thankfully, Kosman shows how Aristotle, being a good Thomist, accomplishes exactly that insofar as he subjects νοῦς to the via remotionis, the way of remotion.


Kosman begins his analysis by posing two questions: (1) “What is it about thought that is so divine that it might serve as a suitable icon for the activity of divine being? and (2) what are the difficulties that might attend understanding thought as divine?” With respect to the first question, Kosman says that it may be thought’s “universal power” that makes it a fitting image for God. As he puts it:

Thought, by virtue of its ability to think anything at all, is capable of becoming all things. It is surely by virtue of thought that the soul ‘is in a sense all being.’ For thought is neither limited nor constrained to something else in what it is about, as sight is to the visible, so there is nothing, as the visible is to sight, more powerful than thought which determines and thus governs it in its activity. On the contrary, mind governs because it knows all things. Only because it is thus most powerful is it capable, so to speak of steering all things through all.

Yet mind’s capacity to become all things is insufficient as an icon for divine thinking. Becoming and potency to become, in general, have no place in the deity. “For if thought thinks of nothing, what about it would be worthy of reverence? It would be as though it were asleep.” This leads Kosman to show how Aristotle purges at least two human aspects from his account of thinking. First, thinking must always be active, rather than possible.

If it thinks, but something else determines it to think, then since that which constitutes its substance would be not thinking but being able to, it would not be the best substance. For it is because of thinking that worthiness accrues to it. (Λ 9. 1074b18-21).

Therefore, if thought is divine, it must be active rather than possible thinking. Otherwise, it would be determined by or in the power of its object, as potency stands to act.

Thought’s thinking, though, leads to a second aporia regarding its intentional object. For if thought is always thinking, what is it thinking about? Either it is thinking about something or it is not. If it is thinking about something, is it determined by its object? If it isn’t thinking about something as distinct from itself, then in what sense is it really thinking? Given that most of Kosman’s article is devoted to this second aporia, thought’s object, he surely thinks this question is the more difficult of the two.

How, then, are we going to remove this apparent limitation in human thinking, i.e. its intentionality, from God? Kosman cautions us against the easy answer—God is self-reflective, therefore there’s no problem. God just is His own intentional object! Yet this won’t do says Kosman, since he thinks this would entail that Aristotle’s God sees Himself as something Other. Were we 19th century Prussian pantheists, we might insist that God does alienate Himself from Himself in and through knowing Himself. For if He did, a distinction would remain between thinking and being thought within God. But then what would be the source of His divinity—thinking or being? Would thinking derive its worth from Being? This, for Kosman, is unnacceptable, for it would still make thinking dependent on its object.

What we need, then, if thinking is to be divine, is an account of thinking according to which thinking’s worth is absolute, i.e. independent from its intentional object. Here Kosman, in good Thomistic fashion, distinguishes the id quod from the id quo within the “economy of perception.” That is, he tries to distinguish between what is perceived in the act of perception—the being of the yellow door—from that by which we perceive—the door’s visible yellow form, which is that by which I am in contact with the door’s being.

This distinction would enable Aristotle to say that God’s thinking truly is simple. He does not relate to something other than Himself, as I do when I see or think about a door through the visible species. He relates to Himself through Himself. His thinking is not an id quod, that which is thought, but an id quo, that through which He thinks Himself. Thus, Kosman argues, any hard distinction between thought thinking thought and thought being thought must vanish.

Yet, I confess, Kosman’s discussion of this aporia left me wanting, and this despite the fact that I agree with his claim that self-reflexivity is probably the wrong way to think about divine thinking—at least if one assumes that reflexivity entails alterity. In spite of Kosman’s fine taste in scholastic distinctions, it seems to me that the aporia does not disappear as he would have us believe. For even if God is nothing more than a simple act of intellect intellecting intellect, pure self-present thinking, there is at least a formal distinction between thought thinking and thought being thought. For even if God is self-present activity and His object nothing more than that by which (id quo) He grasps Himself, is it not possible to ask, ‘well, is there not a difference afterall, at least formally, between thought thinking being and the being being thought? What is most praiseworthy about God’s thinking—is it His thinking simpliciter or His thinking Being by thinking Himself. Is it thinking or being that is most important here?

But perhaps this question misses the point, for Aristotle, according to Kosman’s presentation, is exploring aporiai. That is, Aristotle is asking the question, ‘what would thought need to be like if it were divine? What does it need to be like in order to avoid becoming an idol. It cannot be a possible thinking or a mere capacity to think. Nor can it be dependent in anyway on its object for its worth. Rather it must depend on itself, on the value of thinking qua simple and immediate self-presence. To be sure, Aristotle has gone a long way of purifying his initial image from its human connotations. And perhaps my own aporia regarding his solution is simply due to my own penchant for Pseudo-Dionysius and Plotinus. Yet I can’t help but think that some form of intellectual idoloclasm is needed to think about God, call it apophatic theology. Or rather we might just say with Plato and apparently Aristotle too—that God may ‘be’ beyond being and thought altogether.


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