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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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II

1. The Principle of Plenitude and Christian Theol-
ogy.
The idea of an inexhaustible divine productivity
which cannot but create all possible forms, thus estab-
lishing a full and continuous chain of existing things,
was transmitted to Christian philosophy from Neo-
Platonism, chiefly through the medium of Augustine
and the Pseudo-Dionysius. And it gave rise immedi-
ately to a series of antinomies at the heart of Christian
thought. The first of these (in order of importance) was
the question of reconciling this divine self-transcen-
dence, this constitutional inability not to create every
possible thing without exception, with the divine at-
tribute of liberty.

The problem is clearly presented, for example, by
Abelard (Intro. ad theologiam, III). The Good can
produce nothing but good; to imagine there are good
things He might create, but does not, can only be to
imagine a jealous and unjust God. Thus goodness be-
comes a necessary divine attribute, limiting His free-
dom: being good, He could not have failed to produce
the world, nor could He have produced a better one
than the one He did produce. To the objection that
God acts, then, out of necessity rather than free choice,
Abelard answers that a certain necessity is inherent
in His nature. His goodness is so great that He does
spontaneously what it is impossible for Him not to do.
The “Spinozism” of this position has been clearly
pointed out by Arthur O. Lovejoy ([1936], pp. 71-72);
the connection between this problem and the theodicy
of Leibniz is no less evident.

Thomas Aquinas had to face the same problem, once
having accepted the principle of plenitude. God wills
the multiplicity of things inasmuch as He wills His own
essence and perfection, which indeed contains in itself
all things (Summa contra gentiles I, 75). And yet it
cannot be said that He acts out of necessity—and here
Thomas introduces the notion of consistency: the divine
choice is such that He chooses that which is consistent
with His perfection without, however, His being con-
strained by it (ibid., I, 81). But now it is clear that
this idea of the contingency of creation, which depends
on the divine choice, contradicts the principle of plen-
itude previously affirmed (ibid., II, 45; III, 71; Summa
theologica,
I, q. 25, a. 6).

It is not surprising, given these difficulties, that the
official teaching of the Church tended to silence the
Platonic conception of a self-transcendent deity com-
pelled to create all possibilities. In general the “Chris-
tianization” of the Platonic doctrine of participation
involved a denial of emanationism, for the quality of
liberty had to be attributed to the Creator; and the
multiplicity of the forms of being flowing from the free
act of creation reflected, but did not modify or condi-
tion the richness and perfection of the Divine Being.

But if the idea of fullness, which requires the coinci-
dence of the possible and the real, involved Christian
thought in the difficulties we have seen, the application
of the idea of the biological continuum went far more
smoothly: it was in fact used repeatedly in praise of
that interconnectedness of things (connexio rerum) by
which nature passes only by steps from one kind to
another. The notion of continuity was amply used even
in psychology. In the nature of man different grades
of being meet: as microcosm, he recapitulates the
continuity of orders inherent in the scale of nature.
He is a workshop of all created beings (creaturarum
omnium officina
), and also stands as the union of all
creatures (medietas atque adunatio omnium creatur-
arum
). Not independent of any creatures (nullius crea-
turae expers
), in common with the angels he has intelli-
gence, with animals he shares sensibility, with plants
the vegetable life, and with stones simple being. These
are recurrent motifs in, e.g., Albert the Great, John
Scotus Erigena, William of Conches; and also in
Thomas Aquinas, who places in the human soul the
boundary between corporeal and incorporeal things
(Summa contra gentiles II, 68).

2. Gradation in Nature and in the Sciences, (“scala
naturae” and “scala scientiarum”
). If the ascending
way is placed before the Christian as an itinerary of
moral edification, the same way is also, until the Ren-
aissance, the route that science must follow in recon-
structing that universal plan expressed precisely in the
Chain of Being. This methodical ideal of an upward


327

orientation is very evident, for example, in Raymond
Lully's (or Lull) construction of the tree of knowl-
edge—hence it was transmitted, thanks to the con-
tinuity of tradition set by Lully, to Renaissance ency-
clopedism, and to the pansophic ideal of the first half
of the seventeenth century.

“The likenesses to the divine nature,” writes Lully
in his Compendium artis..., (in Opera, Mainz,
[1721-24], III, 74), “are imprinted upon every creature
according to that creature's receptive capacities,
greater or less in each case... thus every creature
carries, more or less, the sign of its Maker.” Whence
the ideal of a way of knowing that proceeds by signs
(per vestigias) towards the reconstruction of the scale
of beings, of the hierarchies of the cosmos: from stone
to plant, to animal, to man, to the heavens, to the
angels, to God (cf. Liber de ascensu et descensu intel-
lectus
[1304]). Whence also, the full construction of
the “trees” of an encyclopedic knowledge that com-
prehends, in one organic picture of the universe, not
only sensible nature but also the ethico-political life
of man, the structure of the heavens, the divine hier-
archies, all the way to the arbor divinalis, which is
the culmination of the cosmic hierarchy. All things are
contained in Lully's sixteen trees; and in them, taken
together, we have another example of the continuity
of the Scale of Being—for every tree participates in
the nature of all the preceding ones, so that each is
a kind of compendium of the natures below it, and
contiguity is established between preceding and suc-
ceeding orders.

This ideal of knowledge as an ascent through the
grades of perfection of creatures is kept alive, and is
even renewed, through all of the Renaissance. For
example, Giordano Bruno, in the De umbris (1582), says
that all things have an orderly and connected structure,
and for that reason man should keep this scale of nature
clearly before his eyes, and make the effort to climb
from multiplicity to unity. It is this ideal that animates
all Renaissance encyclopedism, and is still quite alive
at the birth of the new science—as the ideal of a
reconstruction of the universe that shall exhibit the
qualities of comprehensiveness, gradation, and conti-
nuity—alongside the experimental method and its col-
lection of more or less unconnected and scattered
scraps of information. The program of the Royal Soci-
ety, for example, as formulated in 1669 by Thomas
Sprat (History of the Royal Society, p. 110), is witness
to this symbiosis of the techniques of experimental
research and the idea of a full and hierarchical uni-
verse. It is precisely the task of science to retrace the
steps of this universe: the program proposed “to follow
all the links of this chain [of the diverse orders of
creatures], till all their secrets are open to our minds.
...” The pages of the Philosophical Transactions are
a body of minute experimental data, offered to the
attention of men of science for no more than what
they are worth as disparate experimental findings; and
yet, for example, the various universal language plans
drawn up by certain eminent members of the Society
(John Wilkins being among the most notable) are based
precisely on the notion of a hierarchical classification
that holds good both ontologically and logically—for
nature as well as for science.