When Does the Human Being Begin to Exist? Special Question 1: Is There a Valid Argument to Say that Human Life Begins at Implantation?

By Dr. David Fleischacker

[This springs from a series of blogs titled “When does the human being begin to exist?” which I had written starting in December, 2007. I had drafted this piece in 2008, but just now finished it.]

Some will argue that an embryo becomes a human being at implantation in the uterine wall. In the business world, this became one of the arguments for those selling the contraceptive pill as well as the morning after pill. These companies could argue that their pill was not an abortifacient, because though it might prevent implantation (as one of the ways for preventing a pregnancy), this did not kill a human being because that “this” was not yet human.

To a philosopher who reads through a biology text on implantation, the argument may sound a bit arbitrary at first glance. Why is something different after implantation? However, there are some biological reasons for saying this. This becomes apparent if one examines the various developmental stages of the embryo.

Early Stages of Development

In any mammal, the first stage of development begins at the moment of fertilization. Sperm entered into an oocyte through a protective layer originally created by the mother called the zona pelucida (or the ZP as it is usually labeled). For many types of animals, the entry location of the sperm then determines a polarity to the cell. Polarity refers to different layouts of the biochemical schemes and constituents of the cell, such that as it begins to divide, these materials begin to cause differences in the way subsequent daughter cells function. Such differences in subsequent daughter cells that are created through mitosis are called cell differentiation. As the zygote begins to divide, the daughter cells form a mass of cells scattered within the housing of the ZP. This is called the morula stage. As cell division continues, some of the cells begin to form a ring called the trophoblast just on the inside of the ZP. Other cells come to fill the inner ring and a blastocoel forms pushing these inner cells to one half of the ring, leaving the fluid called the blastocoel on the other half. This is the beginning of the “blastocyst” stage.

Many texts will identify the “inner cell mass” as that which becomes the adult organism, because it is from this that the matured cell systems of the organism develop. The cells that form the trophoblast are not the source of cells that continue into adulthood. However, not all of this inner cell mass will become the adult either. Once the blastcyst bursts the ZP, it is now possible for the blastocyst to unite with the wall of the mother, which usually occurs in the uterus (though if it bursts from the ZP in the fallopian tube, it could bond at that location causing an ectopic pregnancy). Some of these cells will form part of the placenta with some of the cell schemes attaching to the uterine wall, others to form the amniotic cavity. In other words, only some of these cells of the inner cell mass will become the matured adult systems.

When implantation occurs, there is a further determination or differentiation of these cells such that one can then identify specific cells that will become the adult. This process leads to the gastrula stage where some of the cells then form into a primitive streak and into a node of cells that become important for the induction of further differentiation of cells. Because of this differentiation that determines cell fates, twinning is no longer possible, and hence, this is the reason that some will argue that life begins at this point of differentiation.

The basis for saying human life begins at implantation

The notion implicit in this search for the beginning of life is the search for the determined originating cells that will lead to the matured systems of the adult, such as the circulatory and immune systems. In the zygote, the cell is not yet determined, it could be split multiple times and thus form twins or triplets. Likewise for the morula and blastocyst stages. So in many standard textbooks, a particular life or thing does not yet exists at these earlier stages.

Hence in the language of many textbooks, the “real embryo” is that which arises from those cells which have reached a stage of determined fate.

Shifting the Basis to the beginning of the Unity-Identity-Whole (see Chapter 8 of INSIGHT for more on Unity-Idenity-Whole)

The argument needs to shift seeking the origin of human life from that of the “fate determined cells directly leading to the adult organism” to the origin of the “unity-identity-whole.” One way to think through this is in the following way: At different stages of existence, one and the same being has different relationships to its environment. This is rooted in Lonergan’s point that the unity is a unity in changes (INSIGHT, chapter 8). One sees this after birth. In early stages, young infants nurse from the mother’s milk which has nutrients suited to these first post-natal stages. As the infant grows into a child, a young calf, a kit, or some other pre-adult creature, its abilities to relate and interact with the environment expand in such activities as the food it eats and its mobility. This ongoing horizontal and vertical differentiation and expansion of the creature to the environment is no less true in human beings who have the lengthiest sequence of stages of growth from infancy through childhood, adolescence, and into various phases of adulthood. It is the same unity-identity-whole through all these developmental changes.

This is true as well for the unborn. A zygote is largely related to the zona pleucida, that protective coat of cells formed by the mother when the oocyte was first formed. As the zygote divides within the context of the ZP, it grows until the ZP bursts, at which stage (during the blastocyst stage) it has interiorly differentiated sufficiently to become related to the uterine lining and the environment of the uterus. Hence, differentiations of cells and cells systems at each stage are really part of one and the same being, but having different purposes. The embryonic stage, for example, includes the cell systems that form the trophoblasts, which will then form the amniotic cell system as well as the placenta cell system. These are not distinct from the being of the embryo, but rather “parts” of that whole, in the same way that the immune system and the circulatory system are “parts” of the whole adult organism. The functional meaning of these cell systems at this early stage are grounded upon unity with the entire growing embryo and fetus. Separate these from the whole, and these will loose their wholistic properties. The plancenta for example is not merely an aggregate of cells, but rather it is like the digestive and respiratory systems tied together. The cells of the digestive system and the cells of the respiratory system collaborate in a functional whole which is quite different from each of the properties of the individual cells composing these systems (no one cell digests and no one cell respires). Likewise for the placenta and its role in exchanging nutrients and respiration. Each cell has a function that is part of a whole order of cells. Disconnect the placenta from its relationships both to the mother and to the other cells in the embryo, and it looses this higher intelligible meaning. The cells may still survive for a time, but not in a united way that makes them part of a nutritive scheme. And this nutritive scheme is one that belongs to the unity called the embryo.  It is not a scheme of the mother even though it is related to the mother.  Again, this is much like the lungs which have a relationship to the atmosphere that is breathed. The lungs are schemes not of the atmosphere, but of the creature that breaths.

In contrast

Thus, though implantation does bring about some differentiating cell schemes, it is not the beginning of a new unity-identity-whole, but rather the continued differentiation of an already existing unity-identity-whole. The somewhat confusing language in the world of developmental biology and thus in many text books has led to these ideas that the embryo was distinct from some of these temporary “parts” of the embryo.  However upon closer examination, the “embryo” as a unity is not one distinct thing and the  trophoblastic set of cells another. Furthermore, though this confusion suggests that implantation might be a valid starting point for the organism, the argument here is to eliminate that confusion and shift to the origin of the unity-identity-whole that develops. [Note: Though this point is more or less correct, to be more precise, it is a shift that looks not merely at fated originating cells that will develop into adult schemes, but to a unity-identity-whole that is differentiated both by its current integration and unfolding through its operators into its next stages, and then asks, what is the first stage of “this thing”].  Hence one is moving away from defining this thing and its starting point in terms of a developmental stage, and shifting really to a search for the initial stage with its finality for all the subsequent stages. It does not mean that cell fate is not relevant, but it puts it within the different functions of the cells and cell systems that relate the intrinsic cell schemes to the chemical and cellular world of the creature. Hence, in this larger functional set of relationships in which the unity-identity-whole thrives, the cells that form the placenta and other support functions are just as much a part of the unity as are the cells that form the primitive ectoderm that come to constitute the systems of the adult creature. The fact that they “disappear” at latter stages does not change the central form to which they belong at these earlier stages.

This shift results in turning not to implantation as the starting point of a living thing, but the zygote, since the zygote has the real finality to develop into a mature adult organism (even if twinning occurs). This argument was made in an earlier blog with greater precision however and does not need to be made here.

Almost 50 Years Since Humanae Vitae: Statistics and Finality in Conception

[this was a piece drafted in 2008 when I had been publishing a series on Humanae Vitae.  I had not published this one yet–and now that we are heading toward 50 years since Humanae Vitae, I thought it might be good to get these going again.]


There are a number of factors that effect the statistical probabilities for conception. Sometimes individuals have used statistics to undermine the Catholic teaching against contraception.  Usually the arguments claim that since there is not a direct causal relationship between the conjugal act and conception but rather only a “statistical” one, and contraception simply changes the statistical relationship, then in some circumstances contraception would be ok.  However, this is to fail to understand the nature of the statistical relationship of the conjugal act to conception along with the nature of the moral act involved in this relationship.  In this blog, I intend on developing the nature of statistics and its impact on understanding conception.

The Nature of Statistics

In general, the enriching intelligibility of statistics is centered upon ideal frequencies and rates. These ideal frequencies in turn are based upon the actualization of conjugate forms (events). In any given situation, events that take place do so with certain frequencies. One might say that every type of event has its ideal frequencies, and sometimes that ideal might be all but negligible, and other times it might be quite high. Part of what influences the particular ideal frequency depends upon the spatial and temporal framework, along with the particular ranges of events and their ideal frequencies that currently constitute that situation with its spatial-temporal boundaries. So, for example, one could ask what is the frequency of births. Now, that is meaningless until one starts to set spatial-temporal boundaries. For example, one could say births in a year, within the United States. In addition to the spatial-temporal boundaries, one should know something about the events within that spatial temporal boundary as well. If all that one wants is an actual frequency, then one would just need to count the actual births in a particular spatial-temporal set of boundaries, however, in order to get to ideal frequencies, more needs to be known.  There needs to be a move that grasps an intelligible rate that even abstracts from concrete space and time.

Lonergan notes that there are two ways to get to this ideal frequency (Chapter 2, INSIGHT);

  1. empirically from measure frequencies of events of certain types
  2. or from a knowledge of the given conjugate forms and their realization in events.

The first can be illustrated by the monk, Gregor Mendel, when he counted actual manifestations of traits in pea plants and their progeny. Notice that his starting point already set him in a direction that would allow him to abstract an ideal rate from mating events within concrete space and time (as a note, sometimes one does want to start with concrete space and time as part of the measure, but to reach full ideal frequencies, one needs to break from this so as to return to it with a concrete inference of statistical laws).  For example, he does not in the end ask “how often does one find rough or smooth seeds within a year in such and such a territory.”  Rather, he sets the boundary as another type of event rather than space and time, namely that boundary being the mating of pea plants.  The concrete location, such as Austria or Hungary, and the duration in the region is no longer of interest.  The parents of the seeds are the interest. And in the end, this leads him to some interesting correlations (namely genotype to phenotype–which is an explanatory definition–see ch. 1 of INSIGHT) The more actual frequencies he gathered, the more numbers began to converge on ideals (3:1, etc.).

The second is illustrated by flipping a coin. One knows ahead of time that in flipping a coin there are two outcomes, and unless one side is weighted more than the other, all things equal, the coin has a 50:50 chance of being heads or tails (notice that the concrete space and concrete time is present, but not part of the focus in this either).

One can make a similar move in genetics once the theory of dominant and recessive alleles developed. One can calculate the reason why their is a 3:1 ratio for certain traits when mating two heterozygote pea plants. Thus, if one knew the theory first, one could predict the ideal frequency prior to even counting frequencies. In the case of Mendel, it was the ideal frequencies which led to the theory, but the reverse can happen in science as well. One might just know that there are two possibilities when “something happens”, and thus be able to predict the statistical outcome.

However, our concern with statistics is not so much prediction, but its occurrence within concrete situations. When we ask, for example, what is the statistical probability for conception, one can specify any number of situations. In each case, knowing the statistics tells us something about the situation that we otherwise would not know. And the ideal frequency of various events within a situation is something objective about the situation (if a concrete inference of statistical laws is made, which is similar to a concrete inference of classical laws–see ch. 2 of INSIGHT for more). The situation, with all of its species of events, and with its non-systematically related sets of events, creates a situation in which coincidentality is part of the situation. Now, this is not the place to repeat all of Lonergan’s arguments on this, but his sections in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Insight provide rather convincing pointers to the coincidental aggregation of events within a spatial-temporal manifold. This coincidentality has its roots in what Lonergan calls the empirical residue (Lonergan’s transposition of the traditional meaning of prime matter).

Statistics and Conception

Thus, the statistical probability of conception informs us of something objective about one facet of world process. Conception is the union of the oocyte and the spermatozoa. The formation of the zygote is the particular actualization of concern. The probability of its occurrence is the ideal frequency of its occurrence. Of course, to understand this probability, one needs to specify further factors. For example, one could be just asking this frequency in a given population in a particular region, during a particular time frame, say San Francisco over the course of a year. At the same time, one might be narrowing this a bit, let us say to individuals in the world who are married, or individuals who are not married. Or one might compare various religious groups in the world, and their conception rates. One might have political agenda, or perhaps they might be interested in sorting out various biological difference between ethnic groups (always a dangerous subject!), for good or bad purposes. Notice as well that as one learns more and more factors that might shift the rates, one can further specify these factors, and study sub-groups. So, let us say, that one wants to study the rates of conception for males who have had measles during their life, or perhaps who have been promiscuous during their teenage years. Likewise, one could examine women, and sort them out according to smoking or dietary habits, or perhaps look at certain psychological dispositions. Notice, that the list of sub-factors seems limitless, and this is because there are so many factors that condition conception.

To give a sense of this, let’s name a few more factors:: the rates of production of spermatozoa, the days on which an oocyte is released into the fallopian tubes, the general state and health of the woman’s and man’s bodies, the character of the relationship between the man and the woman (and various psychological states as well), the work habits and home life of the man and woman which influence their marital activities. Many of us recognize for example, that a couple who hate each other and never stay together in the same home will find themselves living in a situation with virtually no possiblity of conception. On the other hand, a young couple, celebrating the honeymoon of their marriage, and seriously desiring to be part of the creation of new life together, and who possess healthy bodies, have a significantly better probability of conceiving.

[I do want to note that many of the factors effecting the probability for conception are identified in a descriptive manner, and thus to become more precise, a shift to theoretically differentiation is needed (which would also significantly multiply the number of factors actually involved). This theoretical differentiation using explanatory conjugates is the level  of probability of which I am concerned in the end.]

Now, one of the points that I would like to highlight is that at any given context of conditions, a couple has a particular statistical probability for conception. This probability however does shift because of numerous factors each day, some of which might be based on regular schemes of recurrence (such as the woman’s fertility cycle), and other on non-systematic components relative to their own organic schemes of recurrence, say certain bacteria or viruses that the man or woman might have contracted that might reduce the production of spermatozoa or perhaps harm the ability to complete the maturation of the oocyte before it is released into the fallopian tube. Regarding the regular cycles in the life of the man and the woman, the statistical probabilities for conception probably hover around certain sets of ideal frequencies during the fertile stages of their adult lives. When the occyte has been released, and the woman’s body prepares itself for the possibility of conception and implantation, which then changes her psyche in relation to the man (yes, this really does happen), and in turn, changes the man’s psyche in relation to her, along with the moral and religious contexts that impact the relationship on a regular basis as well, then one could probably formulate the ideal frequencies of conception. Changes in the lifestyle, in the physical well-being, also change this, as does age, but in the end, there are given objective probabilities for conception between the couple during the course of their lives together and at each stage of their lives together.

Finality and Statistics: The real heart of the matter in conception

If statistics deals with ideal frequencies of the actuation of conjugate forms and of the emergence and existence of things, finality introduces development of those conjugate forms, their ideal frequencies, and of things. Now, let us begin to examine some of the different ways that statistics impacts and relates to finality. Finality deals with a direction of development. Earlier stages possess a set of conjugate forms and their distribution and integration that results in an unfolding sequence of stages of development. The zygote possesses within it a variety of elements that, given the right environment, will unfold into a multi-cellular being, with a variety of higher or vertical intelligible orders of being. So, what starts as a zygote with largely undifferentiated organic schemes that operate within a narrow range of conditions unfolds first in a series of horizontal developments of differentiated organic schemes (eg. new functioning systems such as circulation, digestion, endocrine, exocrine, immunological, etc, systems). Then as the neural system advances, it makes a first vertical leap into motor-sensory operations, with affective re-sponses and pro-sponses through a growing sensory apprehension while in the womb.  As imagination and memory grow and develop, this then prepares the stage for another vertical leap, one into the world of understanding, judgment, and decision (see the blog on the “beginning of the human person” for more precise treatments of this leap as well as challenges to it, since it involves the capacity to transcend the empirical residue).

In each of the horizontal and vertical developments, each stage has a statistical probability for emergence and survival. Earlier stages had made the probability of the current stage likely, but not absolute. The operators (for more on operators, see chapter 15 in INSIGHT) in the earlier stages for these later stages are what shift the entire likelihood of emergence. So, though the emergence of something with a neural structure is very unlikely in this universe, in the zygote of a frog or a cat or a human being, this likelihood is significantly increased, almost systematically. Now, this is not technically a system, because it really is a set of developmental operators. Hence, it is not a scheme of recurrence that brings about these developments. Operators are different than schemes. But they are similar in that these bring about the same kind of development if other events are equal, just as the scheme brings about the same sets of events if other events are equal. Hence, in a development, just as with a scheme, the regular frequencies of various types of events are needed. For example, in order for Kreb’s cycle (a scheme of recurrence) to operate, various proteins, glucose, and other molecules need to be supplied in a statistically regular manner. If the rate of glucose declines, then the rate of kreb’s cycle will decline. If certain proteins are not made regularly, likewise, the cycle will not work regularly. Likewise for development. If the probabilities of events in certain schemes are not maintained, development will cease. If certain proteins are missing, adolescent changes will not take place.

One thing to note however, is that even if later stages do not in fact emerge, the finality of the earlier is not changed. Proper development requires “other events being equal” and just because development fails because other events are not equal does not change the finality. A zygote for example, may fail to continue its development because it fails to implant in the wall of the womb, a failure which may have been made likely because of some chemical deformation of the wall of the womb. This does not change the finality of the zygote however. Or to take another example, human intelligence has a finality for understanding and truth. That finality is manifested in the question for understanding (at the level of understanding) and the question for reflection (at the level of judgment), and just because a person fails to ask these questions, or perhaps undergoes a severe debilitation later in life (perhaps brain damage) that makes it impossible to ask the questions, does not change the finality. Hence, though finality unfolds in and through statistical probabilities of events, schemes, and things, it does not necessarily change in and through those things. Really, in the end, it only changes when the base conditions that essentially constituted the finality in the first place change. Hence the zygote has that finality, unless one removes the genes, destroys the cellular plasma, or some other detrimental effects that essentially kill the zygote. Then this little being has been destroyed, and his or her finality is gone as well. Likewise, one could substantially change the biochemistry, and thus destroy the direction of development (the finality). To take one last example, one could destroy the finality by replacing the genetics in a substantial manner, so that instead of a cow, one gets a cat (though one would have to change other components of the cell along with the genetics). Then the finality has changed.

How to change the finality of procreative fecundity….

Procreative (or sexual) fecundity also has a finality.  And to destroy this finality would require the destruction of the embodied human person. Descriptively, the sexual makeup of the human person permeates his or her whole being. Explanatorily, nearly every system of the body is impacted by it, especially the neural patterns that are formed. Sterilization, contraception, and other non-substantial changes to the human body simply do not change the sexual finality. Earlier in development, arguably, it is easier to make changes in the finality of sexual fecundity, and thus to change a boy into a girl or vice versa (though having the power to do so would not be right because there is a finality within each person linked to the finality of the entire species and to the generalized emergence of the universe). I suppose, if we were creative enough, and had the right technologies, we would be able to even create an androgenous creature, though I am not sure what that would mean because it would require a much different body and brain than men and women currently possess because of how much each of these are tied into the sexual elements of our beings (and I mean all the way down to the cellular and biochemical layouts). As a note, there are no large, multi-cellular organism that possess such androgeny because it would have detrimental effects on the species as whole.  Pick up a textbook on the importance of bi-sexual procreativity in organisms if you want to read about the “advantages” of this kind of setup. We need the pluralism of the genetics and the diversity of roles in order to flourish.

So what does this mean for conception?

Statistics in short is integral to finality.  One stage of development is constituted by various ideal probabilities of events that in various ways condition each other, sometimes in schemes of recurrence, sometimes in a manner that brings about shifts of schemes, and when these shifts involve changes in the kinds of operations possible, a development has occurred.

When understanding the body of a man and the body of a woman, specifically the procreative schemes that are operative after procreative activation has taken place in adolescence, one discovers a finality that is built upon the ideal frequencies of a variety of events leading up to and including the procreative conjugal act.  Finality is not built upon a mechanistic view of the human body, but upon the potentialities that constitute probabilities of emergence.  Human freedom is involved in shifting these probabilities of emergence.  It is from this point, that one can begin to examine the moral relevance of shifting these probabilities with human decisions.

For those who say that “nature” shifts the probabilities for conception–and therefore it is not wrong for human beings to do the same–have failed to investigate the situation thoroughly and make distinctions.  If one wants to appeal to nature, nature as Lonergan argues is for increasing not decreasing intelligibility.  In other words, the concrete intelligibility of this universe is generalize emergent probability, and once one gets that argument, then one begins to see how central the creation of more human beings is to this universe and this unfolding emergent probability. Then one sees that even nature is striving for more beings that can help increase the generic and specific intelligibilities of the universe.  Conception is key in this.  And thus, “nature” is not disconnected statistically from conception, but rather uses statistical probabilities for emergence to increase conception and the fruits of conception (namely matured adult men and women to use a phrase from Lonergan’s essay on Love and Finality–though Lonergan had not integrated statistics into this piece yet).    Thus, human freedom is a freedom to enhance this probability for emergence and its fruits (unfolding horizontal and vertical developments that arise from this emergence of a human being).   One can continue to examine all of the horizontal and vertical developments that spring from conception, and this will differentiate all of the ways that human understanding, judgment, and decision cooperate with this in the right acts that lead to conception.

As a note, what I have put forth, is not an argument that results in complete support for all the Catholic teachings on marriage and family in relation to the conjugal act, but it does I think eliminate a particular challenge to those teachings, especially as one looks at the challenge of contraception.  One of the arguments in favor of contraception (a deliberate intention to attempt to eliminate the probability of conception through deliberate acts to eliminate one or more of the conditions required for conception while taking place after a decision has been made to engage in the sexual act between a man and a woman) was based upon the statistical elements of conception, but the argument that nature already builds in contraception into the system is not adequate to say therefore human beings can use the same no matter what or how.  Even the unconscious elements of the organism discriminate because of “nature” on what or how the body is prevented from conceiving, simply because emergent probability is part of the intelligibility of this order.  Understanding, judgment, and decision likewise discriminate, not because they have to, but because they should.  The transcendental notions that are intrinsic operators of each of these levels of consciousness constitute exigences of this discrimination.  And when these transcendental operators are operative within the lower manifolds which are intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue, they do so with a statistical reality that is intrinsic to the finality of this universe, or at least they should do so to be authentic.

Requiem Memorial Mass for Paul Joseph Sweeney, Feb. 11, 2 pm

On February 11 at 2 pm, Fr. Chris Wyvil OSB will celebrate a memorial Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of our dear friend and fellow student and teacher, Paul Joseph Sweeney, who passed away earlier last month in December.  A reception will follow this Mass.  For those of you who would like to attend, please feel free to come to St. Anselm’s Abbey here in Washington which houses our Lonergan Institute.  The Mass will be celebrated in the monastic chapel of the abbey.

Pierre Manent’s Beyond Radical Secularism, updated notes

Pierre Manent’s Beyond Secular Radicalism




Manent begins with a reflection on the political formation of modern France. Many of his reflections apply more broadly to Europe, and beyond that to the West, but he has in mind especially the particularity of France’s formation and current crisis in facing a militant Islam while at the same time being disarmed by a radical secularism. Manent notes that only political experience which is sufficiently “brutal, penetrating and overwhelming” seems really able to educate nations, as it confronts a people with what is really held in common and what is threatened existentially.


Manent notes that contemporary France assumed its present form after its political experience of the defeat of June 1940. He claims that France finds its center of gravity and vector in General de Gaulle, who chose on behalf of the whole. The Resistance, not the defeat, embodies France’s last great formative experience. “The events” of May 1968 in contrast are like a solvent, their effective truth being merely the de-legitimization of collective rules. “The citizen of action was followed by the individual of enjoyment.” (A hedonism fattens the sheep). This later movement was essentially an apolitical movement which has brought with it a growing incapacity to propose goals for common action. The solvent is a “limitless freedom.” The project of “the construction of Europe” is an enterprise that delegitimized the political framework of the nation. This has left France, despite its material and intellectual resources, politically without strength and facing citizens taking up arms against it brazenly and implacably, with at present only a feckless response.


[Manent’s reflection on the political formation of nations brings to mind the Biblical story of the formation of Israel, which was also marked by formative political experiences such as the Exodus. It also raises the question about what the USA’s formative political experiences are that have given it its present shape and disposition. Also, as I read this, I think in contrast of my pacifist friends that I have known whose view of the nation-state is especially negative. They associate it with the hubris of Nazi Germany. Manent’s positive view of the nation-state and his grieving at its dissolution contrasts markedly with their stance.]




Reactions to recent terrorist attacks in France confirm France’s “disconcerting immobility.” The attacks should be a formative political experience awakening to action and political self-defense. What is nullifying this? There is a pathos in Manent’s perception of France’s (and by extension the West’s) inability to act. He calls it “the tragedy of a great country that refuses obstinately to take a defensive position.”


To shake off the besetting paralysis, the relevant elements of France’s situation must be discerned and set in order. As yet, there is great difficulty even in describing the situation in a summary way since France cannot agree even on the terms they should use to describe what is happening to them. “It is clear that we are condemning ourselves to a going around in a sterile circle, and not without the ritual exchange of offensive epithets. The civic conversation thus becomes ever more acrimonious without becoming any clearer.”


Manent states his goal in this book as being to analyze France’s situation in such a way as to contribute at least to elaborating the terms of a useful political debate. He notes that the first cause of the disarray that paralyses today is the perplexity experienced before the phenomenon of religion. Europeans and Westerners have come to a point where they are almost incapable of speaking of religion “as a social or political fact, as a collective reality, as a human association.” Due to our history, we tend to view religion as a “an individual opinion, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable,” essentially William James’s view of religion. This stance is strengthened by its being dictated by Western liberal political regimes and by the French, etc. being good citizens.


Enlightenment prejudice and triumphalism has left France, and the West, unprepared for political Islam. The victorious emergence of political Islam, which can be dated to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, “was an unforeseen detour from the great narrative shared by liberals and socialists, both equally confident that religion could no longer intervene as an active political factor in world affairs.” [The resurgence of religion undermining the false confidence of socialism and Enlightenment liberals is well established. I can think of several books I read recently where it is treated, Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship, which is a book of literary essays, and Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology]. Manent urges that we work at correcting this error, revising or suspending “the postulate, according to which religion is destined to vanish from modern and modernizing societies.”


[The book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T. Cavanaugh is a very helpful book in confronting the out of control and blinding Enlightenment prejudice against religion which seeks to locate all illegitimate violence in religious sources.]


Underlying the redundancy and fecklessness of modern liberal France’ s status quo political position, Manent asks the pointed question, “What is the relevance of a supposedly scholarly debate that is supposed to address change and yet has not changed in its terminology for decades?”




Manent gives his opinion that the most salient feature in the international order is the disagreement between the average Western and  the average Muslim views. We organize our society around the guarantee of the individual’s rights while, for “them”, it is first of all the morals and customs that provide the concrete rule of a good life. Europeans were able to govern themselves less and less by moral customs and more and more by law and rights because of their development of the modern State. In marked contrast to the strength of the State is the fragility and the instability of political instrumentalities in the Arab-Muslim world, a fragility which contrasts strikingly with the stability and the cohesive power of moral customs in the same world. “While we for our part strive to live with no law and no moral rule other than the validation of the ever-expanding rights of the individual, they hope to find in divine law a just order that political law has too rarely or too sparingly provided.” On both sides, there is a growing addiction to a unique and exclusive principle, the unlimited right of the individual in Europe and the unlimited power of Divine Law in Islamic countries. “..what communication, what accommodation, what contact can there be between the extremism of subjective rights and the extremism of an objective rule?” Both sides are committed to a process of depoliticization, distancing themselves from a political approach to common life.




Manent asks how the French can accept the Muslim way of life as the way of life of fellow citizens without allowing it to be confused with or to take the place of the law. He notes the hopes of some that personal radicalization in Islam, being an autonomous act, will lead to autonomous individuality down the road, but he rejects this as a hope that is too much based on individual psychology and too incognizant of collective reality. He points to the example of communism to  illustrate how free adherence to a community which excludes freedom does not inevitably lead to an ultimate favorability that is directed toward the enjoyment of freedom.


Manent believes the main intellectual and political obstacle to a judicious evaluation of France’s situation is secularism. He proposes that the presence of many Muslims in Europe requires Europeans to accept it as it is in terms of the way of life that is shared by Muslims. He argues that the means of secularism are ill-adapted to bring about reform within the Muslim community. The actual experience of French secularity has been characterized not only by the separation of Church and State but also by a form of collaboration and interpenetration between the being of a secular State and a Christian society that is profoundly marked by Catholicism. This does not exemplify or point to the being of a religiously neutral common life nor a state that merely protects individual rights but, instead, it exhibits “the following trinity: the neutral or ‘secular’ state, a morally Christian society, and the sacred nation.” The French experience of secularism has very little to do with what is now meant by the term.




Islam and Catholicism have completely different histories in relation to France. In the case of Catholics at the end of the 19th Century, there was no question of having to integrate them but rather of emancipating civic life from the pressure of the Church and its “clerics.” In contrast, even setting aside the conflict and violence that was linked with colonization, the difference between the Muslims and those indigenous to France which defined the colonial situation led to the existence of separate lives. There is a separation which flows historically from the lack of participation of Muslims in French history, except as subject populations or as a long-inferior labor force.


For the last thirty years enlightened opinion [in other words, Enlightenment prejudice] has proceeded as if the solution to the problem was in hand and that it only lacked a form of coherent and firm application: secularism. In reality, all that has happened is that an illusory city, “the secular Republic,” has been constructed and it is believed that its application to a supposedly docile part of the civic body has been mastered.


[Manent is addressing the difficult situation of how to acknowledge and engage with the disaffected Muslim enclaves and communities without surrendering French identity at its core.


Indeed, on what basis do Westerners have such confidence that they are capable of assimilating recalcitrant Muslim communities? Why such faith in the “negative capability” of secularism to affect this change?]




In terms of possible solutions, as a point of departure, the problem must be acknowledged. The French must realize that the State which they expect will produce a secular society is much weaker than would be necessary for even some slight success in this task. First, the French State has abandoned its representative ambition and pride in joining with the E.U., thereby losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. People look to “Europe” rather than to France and the French people as a national community are being politically delegitimized and even morally disqualified. The function of politics has been reduced to the libertarian protection of individual rights, which themselves are indeterminate and limitless.


The resultant State does not feel itself authorized to require much of its citizens. Conscription is shelved along with a truly common education. Equality is leveling all, including levels of discourse, national histories, and the difference between great works of art and  others. Now when the State assigns to secularism the task of repairing the social fabric, it takes up a task that goes against everything that it has declared desirable over the last forty years. “Under the name of secularism we dream of teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”


The idea of a process of neutralization through secularism amounts to making religion disappear as something social and spiritual by transforming the objectivity of the moral rule into the subjective rights of the individual. It is an “imaginary transposition of a misinterpreted historical experience to a misunderstood new situation.”


The situation is unprecedented and the pretense that secularism provides a political means of neutralization that needs to only be rediscovered, renewed and taught is blinding. The situation is unprecedented and unprecedented political means must be developed to face it. The great instrument of modern politics, the State, has reached its moral and spiritual limits.


Despite the successes of the liberal and “democratizing” State in Europe from 1848 to the Great War, the State nevertheless experienced an enormous political and spiritual failure in how it dealt with the Jews in Europe.




The development of anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th Century into a decisive factor signals the first great failure of the liberal State. The liberal project deals with individual, not religious groups. Clermont-Tonnerre formulated its emancipatory project: “to refuse everything to Jews as a nation, and to grant everything to Jews as individuals.” The project turned out to be a patent failure in the 20th Century. Instead, the result was the founding of a Jewish nation, and the contemporary Jewish condition in which Jews are not “contained” in either the state of Israel or the States where the Jews of the diaspora are citizens. The Jews are liberated from the form of the State and have become  a factor in world affairs as a people.


The Jews of France have doubts about France and their safety in the State against the Muslims of France. Just as the Jews had to rediscover the continuity in their history, the French, understood as an open whole, must search in their history for resources that are still latent in order to preserve a union with their Jewish fellow-citizens and forge one with the Muslim fellow-citizens. The “material and spiritual weakness of the State requires both parties to outline the contours of a new association that will no longer be simply contained in the political regime, as indispensable as that regime remains.”


Manent says the French pretend to be alert to the return of anti-Semitism but are blind to the arrival of something new. The hunt for anti-Semitism and the placing of faith in secularism spring from the same anachronism. “We have very largely left the political and moral world in which these terms had a quite clearly determinate meaning… The new reality needs to be named more clearly: war. The Muslims sometimes target only Jews, but they also target Christians, blasphemers, the police, and the authorities and institutions of the Western nations.”


People avoid naming the reality because it is unpleasant to think that the whole human realm in which they live is the object of religious enmity that motivates a war in which the Jews are a permanent but not exclusive target.




Manent calls the major fact of France’s situation the radical loss of authority of the main and decisive instrument of modern politics, the State (or the French Republic). There is a tendency to return to the pre-modern situation in which there is no border between the interior and the exterior and there is no longer a potency to the State capable of reducing the constituent groups of France into citizen-individuals. The modern movement of politics consisted in the subjection of the transnational bodies which were largely independent of the State, the Church, the aristocracy, and the dynasties, to the State by making the State the representative instrument of the nation. [If it is true that what we call the wars of religion might better be called the birth of the modern nation-state, it would seem that we are beginning to pass into an ambiguous realm beyond the borders of the order that that period established].


The deliberate effacing of borders can be seen in the case of Europe which attempts to homogenize the nation-states of Europe into the European Union. It is also passively observed under the rubric of “globalization.” [In the United States, we can observe it in the liberal castigation of any attempt to maintain physical borders and legal citizenship as “racism.”] Manent observes that it is often ignored that the effacing of political borders often leaves religious or spiritual borders intact, possibly even strengthening them to become the main borders. “There has never been, there is not now, and there will never be a world without borders.”


The question of Islam for European countries, and especially for France, is a question of high and great politics because it is a question at once of the internal and the external. Domestic questions cannot be treated without treating foreign policy and vice versa. The problems France faces will become insoluble without the development of a coherent and stable disposition that defines France’s relation to Islam. Reality itself has become largely independent of the weakened, legitimate political order. The essence of the Republican project is the common good, or civic friendship, and this must be worked out with Muslims on bases other than the dominant, scholastic interpretations of the Republic.


Islam should be considered as a whole that is both external and internal to France because it is. It fulfills the three dimensions of human time, giving stability, compactness and completion to the umma. Islam, understood as a meaningful whole, is in motion. Europeans, plagued with guilt, are trying to start over at zero with a historical ignorance they are trying to preserve. They are disarming while others are arming.


[As friendly fellow citizens, we need to try to wean ourselves and liberals from their intellectually handicapping, pseudo-sophisticated therapeutic terminology. It is mentally stunting to always be reflexively associating preservation of the physical and legal boundaries of the modern nation-state with racism and white supremacy…. Is there something about the modern nation-state that makes it more dangerous toward the stateless?]




A simple description of the situation in Europe is that Islam is putting pressure on Europe and advancing into Europe. It is doing so by establishing numerous Muslim populations such as those in France (in the banlieues), and by the growing influence of Gulf countries with seemingly unlimited capital, and by Islamic terrorism. Manent notes an eagerness to interpret the crimes committed in January 2015 (the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and later the shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark in a way that allows the French to keep their illusions as well as their self-esteem. Manent considers the meaning of such acts of terrorism for those who perpetrate them and those who inspire them to be the extension into Europe of Sharia law. Strange the static that prevents such straightforward conclusions from being uttered. Though the three elements he mentioned are distinct and should not be conflated, he regards such a precaution as in itself insufficient since the three link together. The question naturally arises, “How could such enmity be born and grow in our midst?”


The terrorist acts are not merely isolated, odious acts, but are guided by an aim of war and the intent to ruin the very possibility of  common life between Muslims and non-Muslims. The French nation-state’s provision of military protection to Jewish institutions and its army’s considerable intervention in West Africa are not because of the acts of a few “lone wolves.” Manent concludes that Europeans, and especially the French, must address Islam as a phenomena that is both external and internal, and they must do so by developing a stable disposition, a disposition that is essentially defensive.




Europeans find themselves in a defensive position against Islam and this is the first time in a long time that they are facing something new in the West that did not come from within Western life. Europeans must defend themselves from no other standpoint than that of defending themselves and preserving as much as possible of their material, moral and spiritual goods. This necessitates a self-transformation through progress in self-understanding. A defensive policy must be elaborated. Some warn against a non-existent threat that a reactionary “crusade” will be launched but there is no evidence of that ever being likely to happen any time soon.


The dominant opinion has been gravely mistaken in attributing to secularism the power to transform the Muslim way of life into individual rights. Considered as a group, or as part of French society, Muslims tend to conduct themselves as Muslims. Furthermore, France is witnessing the extension and consolidation of the domain of Muslim practices rather than its shrinking and relaxation.


Manent concludes that the French regime must concede and accept the Muslim’s ways since they are fellow citizens. A tacit contract has accompanied Muslim immigration to France for the last forty years by which they were accepted as they were.  It is foolish to countenance the idea that a unilateral renunciation of this contract would be possible if only an energetic, xenophobic government comes to power. The political body of France has been substantially, even essentially, transformed by the presence of Muslim populations.


This situation is why the position is defensive, because concessions are forced by the circumstances. It is a defensive politics because, despite French and European weakness, there are still great moral and spiritual resources that can be renewed, activated and mobilized. The politics of the possible can be embraced through leaving behind dreams of “fortunate diversity” and the half-repressed desires to return immigrants “to their own country.” This politics consists of a compromise of the Muslim citizens with the rest of the civic bodies based on two principles: accepting Muslims as they are, renouncing authoritarian attempts to “modernize” their way of life, and preserving and defending certain fundamental features of France’s physiognomy.




Manent does not pretend to know how to resolve all the problems and frictions which would result from the broad acceptance of the Muslim way of life that he counsels, but he remarks that it seems to him that Europeans could be more generous in giving Muslims who wish for it the way of life that they believe to be obligatory or desirable without hindrance or accusation. He criticizes, for example, politicians in a program of “strengthening secularism” making a single menu, with pork obligatory, for school lunches. This confronts Muslim families with a choice between violating a dietary prohibition and withdrawing their children from the lunch program. It is mean-spirited.


Manent notes what he regards as the most serious objection to this broad acceptance of the Muslim way of life: “Such a policy risks consecrating, reinforcing and so to speak embedding in the body politic what appears to most of us to be the subordinate condition of the Muslim women.” He replies that the tacit immigration contract said nothing to the Muslims about having to adhere to a Western idea of relations between the sexes. However, the exclusive legality of monogamous marriage was included in this contract.


Manent thinks it also a right of the rest of the French polity to prohibit the burqa as inadmissible, not only because it affects women exclusively and constitutes an inequality, but first of all because it prevents the exchange of signs by which a human being recognizes another human being. The visibility of the face is one of the elementary conditions of sociability. “To present visibly one’s refusal to be seen is an ongoing aggression against human coexistence. Europeans have never concealed the face, except the executioner’s. Indeed, human groups are rare that have imposed on themselves this lugubrious servitude. We have the right and the duty to impose the most absolute prohibition on this manner of dress.”




Manent is advising a defensive politics for France and Europe with a two pronged approach. First, an increase in the open acceptance of Muslim ways and second, a reinforcement of elements of France’s “ancient constitution.” The politics he advises are to prevent a transformation of France by means of which the authority of Muslim ways would penetrate the whole of France’s common way of life. He claims that this transformation is already advancing apace under the protection of “secularism,” which vainly promises a transubstantiation of Islam that will never happen. The deliberate increase in acceptance of Muslim ways will only accomplish the capitulation to Islam without the simultaneous reinforcement of a core French “constitution,” but it is necessary in order to see squarely the place Islam has assumed in the life of the nation, in order to make correct political evaluations of the current state of affairs.


Manent is sparing in what he would prohibit: polygamy and the burqa. (What about female circumcision of children?) There are mainly two principles that he would have all affirm including France’s Muslims as constituent elements of France’s common life. The first principle is complete freedom of thought and expression. He says that the French must absolutely reject a circumscription of their freedom in order to accommodate a new element of European life that lacks the habit and therefore the taste for freedom. Currently, freedom of thought and speech concerning Islam is repressed under the name of “Islamophobia.” “…what is repressed is the capacity to treat Islam in the same way all political, philosophic, and religious elements of our society have been treated for two centuries.” This immunity from criticism is the worst service that can be rendered to Islam when demands for its reform are heard on all sides.


We can and must respect persons because they are human beings when they believe in dogmas that seem absurd to us. “The masterpiece of a free society consists in knowing how to combine the vigorous criticism of opinions that seem to be false with respect for persons.” The worst thing that could happen to prevent things going forward instead of the maintenance and replenishment of this art of democracy is a meaning for “freedom” that means unbridled speech with respect to persons while at the same time certain “protected areas” spread and are consolidated. “We would thus be at once degraded by license and numbed by the multiplication of prohibitions.”


Manent underscores that it is because freedom of criticism has such a strong tendency to provoke passions that it is so important to obey the law that commands us to respond to critical speech, if one is to respond, only by critical speech. He sums up the first principle by saying that whoever lives in Europe must accept that the political law puts no limit on what may be thought, spoken, written, or drawn.


One factor that explains the current impasse is the lassitude of Western freedom. Freedom is recognized only in its exaggerated and degraded forms of insult and obscenity. In the more regulated and noble forms, freedom is found strangely boring. The notion of freedom can become formalistic, leaving society weak and sluggish, incapable of governing itself with a modicum of reason.


The Muslim community in France is too strong for French secularism. More is called for than the French secular regime, which brings us to the second principle, that of the “ancient constitution,” which Manent would have the French emphasize and stress. He would yoke a greater open embrace of Islam in public with a return to a “way of life” that is not separable from the regime but which is distinct from it, which conditions the regime and which surpasses it.




Is it true that Europe has been shaped more by the nation than by empire in comparison to Islam?


France’s way of life is determined by both internal and external factors and Islam presents a quandary to both the French nation and to European civilization and history. The question of what “true Islam” is is detached from the actual context in which political action must take its bearings. In order to seek for an orientation in the great political question of Europe, whether with regard to European unification or relations with Islam, France cannot abstain from advancing propositions regarding European history. There are a number of major facts which structure European life without which the  physiognomy of Europe would be unrecognizable, facts which seem to hold meaning for the past, the present and the future. A meaningful relation to the past does not of course mean a dictating of the decisions in the present.


Manent offers the following brief synopsis: While Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse and the consciousness of empire, Western Christianity, despite being born in an imperial form and subject to great missionary and conquering movements, has found its relative stability instead in the nation or in the plurality of nations called “Christendom,” then Europe.


The moral character of empire is less certain than the city. As the pride of domination flourishes, there is an expansive movement that has no natural limit. Empire is subject to a principle of boundlessness that prevents or hinders the mind’s self-reflection. The city in contrast retains a sense of limits and of the limits of human things. Ancient Israel preserved its knowledge of the meaning of humanity in between the empires of the East until the Western empire destroyed the Second Temple.


The form of Empire is relatively weak, particularly in governance of the parts furthest from the center. Because of this there have been enormous fluctuations in the empires of the East. This characteristic has ceaselessly affected the political life of Islam. The secular tendency in this civilizational area seems to be a weakness in both unity and diversity. Christendom in contrast found its formula and its form in the constitution of a system of nations that we know today as Europe.


Manent questions the validity of the genealogical narrative which attributes the modern separation of Church and state to the words of Christ regarding Caesar and taxes. The narrative implies that it was only by the radical separation of European political principles from the principles of Christianity that it was possible to bring to light the principle that this radical separation was something which was fundamental to Christianity. In any case, separation is not a political principle that is sufficient unto itself. Europeans need to look for what has been the principle of unity and of the association of European humanity throughout our history. The starting point and the principle of European history has been to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian gospel. In attempting to align themselves with these two determinations, Europeans left behind the imperial matrix. Beneath the rivalry of Church and empire there was “the divergent and complicit operation of two principles of freedom.” In the fructifying tumult a new political form, one ignored by the ancients, was born. What distinguishes Europe is not the separation between religion and politics but a more intimate union which exists between them.


The Christian Church is the only religious institution which presents itself as produced by a purely spiritual act, the act of faith. “The object of Europe’s ceaseless quest can be defined, in theological terms, as the common action of grace and of freedom and, in political terms, as the covenant between communion and freedom.” The European nation remained throughout its history a kind of community of spiritual education that wove together self-government and a relation to the Christian proposition, a two-fold intention which opens up a plural and indefinite history.


By assuming the end of the nation and also the end of religion, the thesis of separation takes such a hold on the mind that it renders one incapable of holding within the mind the two great stakes and henceforth excludes them from the European conversation, thereby preventing Europe from remaining Europe.




Because the history of Europe is held at a distance in the way that is above described, Islam’s entry into European life appears to dominate opinion as “a problem that does not arise.” The abstracted social space in which the sole principle of legitimacy now resides in human rights understood as the unlimited rights of individual particularity, no significant associations or communions are acknowledged to exist. It is even believed that they are “pretended realities,” only invoked to block newcomers. The treatment of old nations and old religion as realities is assumed to mean an attack on Islam.


The keepers of the gates of European culture do not consider Islam to be an association or a community. The impetus for this rests in self-consciousness. The belief that Europe is empty of common national or religious substance is willed. It is a question of verifying the absence of anything common politically or religiously, and the presence of Islam is the supreme marker of this spiritual evisceration, precisely because it has been the supreme enemy of Christianity over the centuries, and because its moral practices are now the furthest from those of the Europe of human rights.


Manent writes, “If I have one ambition, it is that the analysis I propose of the European experiences might be adequate to allow us to see Islam as an objective reality, instead of its remaining the reflection of our self-misunderstanding.” He wants to help make it possible for Europeans, and especially the French, to really come to terms with Islam.


Manent remarks that Europeans have lost faith in Providence or in the primacy of the Good. He thinks Americans still pray for divine protection for their nation in contrast to Europeans.  He holds that Europeans never excluded their neighbors, allies, or enemies, from divine benevolence until they were subjected to regimes that explicitly rejected the God that is announced in the Bible. To reject Providence because of the Shoah only sets us back to the religion of Epicurus. If we do not give up on life, then we must act. This confidence must not be forbidden out of scruple which prevents us from acting for the common good. An argumentative relation with divine Providence is replaced by an abject submissiveness to blind forces such as the global marketplace. Post-Providence man organizes himself in order to have less and less need of free will. The prestige of this false replacement for Providence must be dissipated.




Despite most beliefs to the contrary, the only chance for Islam’s tolerably successful participation in European life lies in the revival of nations and not in their effacement. “Islam can only be received within a community of action that engages it and essentially obliges it to participate in what is common; in an arrangement without a common goal, one that merely guarantees and respects human rights, it can never be more than suffered.” The old inhabitants of France are not allowed to be named by any of their collective affiliations so as not to make the Muslims feel excluded. Muslims are made to disappear as well by prohibiting their being named as a group.


The notion of Islamophobia, borrowed from Islamic propaganda, makes it possible tendentiously to disqualify all speech on Islam or on the Muslims. Once the notion of Islamophobia is established and validated, it is impossible to speak of Muslims except to state their grievances, and they cannot speak except to complain.” It is not surprising that Muslims give into the temptation but what is surprising is the dereliction of governments supporting the notion in that they do not realize the harm they are doing to the social body, and to Muslims first of all.


European governments are increasingly abandoning the domain of actual political action. They treat social life as a spectacle and the parts of the body politic as objects the perception of which is subject to command. They go to ridiculous lengths to command their citizens not to see. Muslims are lured into “the great game of complaint”  which for some time has been “the preferred vocal register of the constituent groups” of France. The transformation of the public conversation into a tearful quarrel has deleterious consequences for society as a whole and for each of its parts, consequences that are all the more serious for those parts that are more distant from the heart of national life.


[Manent is giving solicitous attention to the ground rules and principles necessary for there to exist at all real public discourse. There is a dignity to man as a political actor that is being denied to citizens by the therapeutic strategies of the modern regime which ostensibly are for the benefit of the citizens. The citizens are infantilized so that politics becomes the dispensing of fair amounts of milk].




The social movements summed up in the word “socialism” were driven by an affirmation concerning the social truth. Socialism considered the life and action of the group of the “exploited” within the perspective of the positive transformation of the social whole. Contemporary claims are of a very different kind in that they aim directly at no transformation of the social whole, which they do not in effect acknowledge. They are circular or self-referential. “We proceed as if there were no social and political life, but a state of affairs that a detached observer might look over in order simply to verify that equality is properly respected.” By ignoring the form of society in which one is supposed to arrive at equality, Europeans ignore the decisive question.


The assessment of collective perspectives is particularly tricky in the case of Muslims in France because of the vague and incomplete knowledge of the extent of their claims. The present arrangement seems to induce a passivity in most Muslims, excluding those Muslims who assimilate and become indistinguishable and those Muslims who declare themselves “enemies” of France, etc. Most Muslims, Manent observes, in France remain in a condition that is too passive and too inarticulate to know with any clarity what they want and how they would respond. Often the French, with the best intentions in the world, dissuade the Muslims from expressing themselves with candor. The modern European wants to be an unencumbered individual, without significant attachments, and he wants to see around him only such individuals. This social commandment does not have the power to deeply transform the substance of  the Muslim ummah, but it is sufficiently intimidating to shape the way the substance of the Muslim group is expressed.


If things continue the way they are now, without everyone learning to address the whole and face the question of the common good, the situation will exacerbate with the spread and consolidation of what is called a “morality-based group.”


Muslims will be able to leave behind the immanence of traditional moral practices only if society as a whole, the political body in its entirety, rids itself of the immanence of rights and of their exclusive authority. Our rights do not provide us with a form. “Rights, deprived of life and the fecundity of a form, are abandoned to their sheer transgressive virulence.” As understood now, human rights imply the disappearance of Islam as a form of common life but Muslims will not consent to this. The only political form available for the transformation of the life and consciousness of Muslims is the national form, the form of the old nation.




Manent points out that his proposal does not make the vain requirement of a “reform of Islam,” which he does not deem a pertinent political question since non-Muslims would never have more than a small influence on such a metamorphosis and nothing indicates it in the near future. Manent asserts that the political and spiritual weakening in Europe is the major fact of our time. It ought to be plain by now, he says, that Europe cannot be the new political form that might shelter European life as the nations did up until now.


If Islam continues to spread and consolidate in a space that is deprived of political form in which all forms of common life are delivered over to insidious criticism from the standpoint of individual rights, “now the source of all legitimacy,” then all that remains for the future of Europe is Islamization by default, which he calls “the latent truth of our situation.”  Manent stresses the urgency of making a transition from a passive coexistence between the society of rights and and the society of Islamic morality to the active participation of both groups in a common political form which can only be the national form.


The weakness of France and the other European nations is primarily political and moral, not material. The question of Islam has become prominent for Europeans precisely at the moment when they are experiencing growing doubts concerning the merits of economic denationalization. Manent’s intent is not to propose something desirable to a few citizens with a certain turn, but to know if the nation can still be the framework and agent of deliberation and action providing for a desirable and meaningful future for all its citizens.


The present regime has brought about its paralysis and possible demise by the ever narrower and more unilateral way it has understood its principles. “We are probably the first, and we will surely remain the only, people in history to give over all elements of social life and all contents of human life to the unlimited sovereignty of the individual.” What is at work under the terms “equality” or “secularism” is the disqualification of all shareable contents of life for not being chosen by the individual. The regime has taken to drawing more and more on a principle upon which it happens to be impossible to found anything at all. Survival requires awakening from “the vertigo of dissolution.”


The modern state tends to deny the importance of the question of the regime or political form because, by guaranteeing members of the society the enjoyment of their rights, it seems to dispense them from having to govern themselves. It stands between man and God and arrogates to itself the task reserved to divine Providence. The secular state is the presumptuous and bloodless heir of the modern state. The modern State, at its strongest, drew its strength from peoples that were seeking the best means to govern themselves in obedience to divine government. The governance that wraps itself now in the European cloak is entirely detached from the political order, and any regime and any political form. It is a power that holds itself aloof from both the people that it would represent and God, when it is in fact at their mercy.


Q: What would re-legitimate the political form of the state in such a way as to summon secularists and Muslims and other spiritual powers from their passivity to pursuit of the common good in politics? What would neutralize the delegitimizing cult of the self and of the “immanence” of the Islamic sharia?




There are two major questions left gapingly open by European governance which must be returned to reality, the question of regime and the religious question. It is urgent that a representative regime be recovered but this presupposes a people to be governed. The governments of Europe are responsible to their respective peoples and not to “the European Idea.”


Manent proposes that the initiative that would be most likely to forge the relationship of representation and to engage an animated civic conversation would consist in commanding France’s Muslims to establish their independence from the various Muslim countries that send out imams, and that finance and sometimes administer or guide the mosques. This is first of all a question of political sincerity. The point is that each party to the national debate must show that it is serious by taking certain actions that cost something and that show a commitment.


Such a defensive position does not imply that one considers Islam to be an enemy but rather it prevents enmity from taking root. The “imperial” lack of a distinction between the internal and the external characteristic of Islam must be confronted rather than exempted from obedience to the national political order. Failure to do this will mean an act of political and spiritual submission that France will not be able to recover from. These commands will only have the desired effect if French Muslims ultimately consent. Mastering the difficulties of this task is the only way that the government and the nation will show themselves capable of welcoming Muslim citizens while at the same time defending themselves against the external pressure of Islam.


Manent again stresses that “secularism” allows the French to “take a position” but in no way guides public action in a way that takes account of current conditions. The rule Manent is calling for does not make the active participation of Muslims in national life more difficult, but rather it clears the ground and makes possible such participation. “The indifference that asks nothing of them under the pretext of respect in fact abandons them… to a general demoralizing passivity.”


Manent says he is looking for a way out of the impasse between two passive groups. Islam is passive in the immobility of its moral practices and its closed community. Europe is passive in its surrender to the processes that pervade it. Only an encounter that is active on both sides will revive the representative vigor of the French regime.


Q: What borders would Manent strengthen and what barriers would he break down?




Does not citizenship understood as a stripping of all attachments tend to destroy citizenship? What happens to the community of citizens to which such a citizen-individual belongs? The “citizen” of today is someone who has understood that citizenship cannot be circumscribed by a national attachment, since this most often depends on birth. The understanding of citizenship as a detachment or a breaking free leads to the absorption of the rights of the citizen by the rights of man, leading to the formation of a new figure, the citizen-individual (a devotee of the cult of the individual).


Manent’s contention is that Muslims are not going to find their place in a society that is defined by this kind of citizen. Citizenship cannot mean tearing away from religious community for them or other members of the civic body. Muslims will become truly citizens only by seeing themselves as Muslims and as members of the national community.


In the exchange called for, Muslims experience a shrinking and an expansion, a shrinking because one must accept being part of a whole; an expansion through participation in that whole, which is larger than itself. Islam on imperialistic terms is unacceptable.


Manent says communitarianism constitutes a degraded form of religious and political life. It confuses religion and politics because it has not brought to term the distinct movement by which it gives itself to the political community and receives itself from that community. Communitarianism is best defined by a distrust that is both religious and political. It maintains souls without generosity. He ventures to assess that France’s Muslims have not yet settled into communitarianism. The question has not been decided because the Muslims have not yet received a credible proposal and so have nothing to respond to. They have been left with the abstract and possibly specious choice between communitarianism and secularism, understood as the neutralization of religion in society.


Secularism is a governmental arrangement that does not exhaust the meaning of common life and only provides an impoverished and abstract picture of it.


Manent identifies secularity in its proper sense as the rigorous separation of political rule from all religious commandments and precepts and he says that this is necessary and salutary. Catholics must make the same movement of soul and Muslims must give themselves generously to the political whole. If they do not, refusing to take a part, and wishing secretly to rule, they will deprive themselves of the elevation and the enlargement that are inseparable from a generous contribution to the common good.


“A period of trial is beginning, one that will be as decisive for the subsequent physiognomy of Catholicism, and thus of France, as were the Revolution and the Second World War.” Manent warns Catholics against the “circle the wagons” mentality at this juncture because it is insufficient to face the hazards that are attendant to the fragility of the political body as it stands. A simply reactive response is neither noble nor politically judicious and exhibits deficiencies in hope and charity. He believes that the Catholic Church is marked by its calmness and equilibrium and by its being the only spiritual force that approaches matters so as to take into account the views of others in a deliberate and thematic way.

The Church has entered into a constant dialectical and moral debate with the doctrines of the universalism that is contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which represents a derivation from the Christian doctrine and a rupture with it. This dialectical opening of the Church has not been repaid since the ideology of human rights has taken on a virulence in recent times that is directed especially against her. Manent asserts that the Catholic Church is the least intolerant and the most open of the spiritual forces that concern France. It should therefore have a sense of responsibility for the whole. The task of Catholics lies elsewhere than in mere self-defense. They have a special responsibility for the common good of France. The Catholic Church’s companionship with the French nation has been the most extensive and deepest among all the spiritual forces that are contending in her. The relationship has been reciprocal. France’s common life will suffer spiritual atrophy and a defect of sincerity as long as it remains incapable of publicly addressing the intimate relationship that links France to the Church.


Q: Where does Manent’s understanding of Christianity and political engagement leave what is being called “the Benedict Option”? (Does his conception of Christian political engagement clash with, for example, Rod Dreher’s, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s?)


Q: How can we give ourselves to our nation in the most Christian way?




For human groups as for individuals, either they find their good within the common good, or they fail at the common good, thus losing their own good and losing themselves. He holds that the Catholic Church has a special responsibility to the common good but recognizes that other spiritual forces (including evangelical Protestantism} may not be disposed to recognize it. He says this is only fair, as those who feel responsible for the whole can only bring others to accept their special role if their own contribution to the common good is sufficiently convincing.


France’s Muslims will only find their place in French society if they find it in the nation. They will only find it in the nation if the nation accepts them according to its truth and according to their truth, not simply as rights-bearing citizens accepting other bearers of the same rights, but as an association that is marked by Christianity that is granting a place to a form of life with which it has never before mixed on an equal footing.


Some degree of communitarianism is inevitable. The Muslim communities will be surrounded by a nation possessing a Christian mark in which Jews play an eminent role. There is no choice but to set about this undertaking. Success would be glorious.


Q: In what way, if at all, should Christians assert a Christian history and a Christian stamp to their nation, should they perceive one? How is this to be done with respect to believers in different faiths such as Jews and Muslims?




Europeans seek repose in movements that are unimpeded by borders. A life without law in a world without borders has been the horizon of Europe’s utopian dream for at least a generation. Islam also in its own way disregards borders. “How is it that Europeans have come to hate autochthony to this extent?…We think, feel, and often act as if we were confronted with the alternative between autochthony and rootlessness, and of course, we choose rootlessness, under the name of globalization or free exchange, out of horror of a volkisch autochthony.” With the failure of imagination and memory so that they do not recall an alternative in which they do not have to choose between autochthony and rootlessness. Europe was great through its nations when it was able to mix Roman virtues, courage, and prudence with a faith in a God who is friend to every person.


The collapse into violent immanence that has characterized the 20th Century derived from the weakening of Christian mediation, when nations, especially the youngest and most powerful, and those for which the mark of Christianity was profoundly troubled by the duality of confessions, claimed immediate expressions of humanity itself.


There is no future for Europeans, either on the side of autochthony nor on the side of rootlessness. This deadly either/or is due to our establishment of ourselves within immanence as the true place of humanity. [In Mark Edmundson’s Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, he argues for the case that Shakespeare was a great shaper of modernity by his anti-heroicism and by his opening of a space for bourgeois existence that is not much concerned with the transcendent. I am reminded of his argument when I hear Manent’s remark that we have established ourselves within immanence as the true place of humanity].  Our self confinement to this either/or has left us only with a choice between being rooted and being uprooted. The arc of European history with its stamp of Christianity has become unintelligible to contemporary Europeans. To declare or even guarantee the rights of human beings is not sufficient to bring men together. A form of common life is need and the future of the nation of a Christian mark is a cause that can unite the spiritual forces in France.


Q: What does Manent mean when he says that the collapse into violent immanence has left an false either/or choice between rootlessness and autochthony? What is the solution he urges?

Knowledge of Christ seminar, message from Sam Pell

It was great to meet you all a few weeks ago and discuss St. Thomas Aquinas. We will continue our study this month with a discussion of Lonergan’s appropriation and development of St. Thomas’ cognitional theory.

First off, let me start by saying our group seems to consist of two groups of people (1) Lonergan experts who have been studying this kind of thing for years, and (2) people who are now being introduced to Lonergan for the first time. I guess I’m kind of in the middle, since I’ve only been reading Lonergan for three years.

Our goal for this next meeting is to bridge that gap between the two groups. I’m envisioning a discussion much like we had last week, where we all familiarize ourselves with the broad outlines of Lonergan’s cognitional theory. Our goal should be less to exhaust the topic, and more just to familiarize ourselves with the terms Lonergan uses and the relations between them.

Lonergan’s “canonical” summary of his cognitional theory can be found in Chapter 1 of Method in Theology. Let’s start by reading that (you can skip the introduction): ​
Method in Theology – Intro and Chapter 1 – actu…
​Br. Thomas Martin has published a paper attempting to condense Lonergan’s cognitional theory into a single diagram. We can also discuss that:


Both these articles should serve as an introduction to Lonergan’s thought. If you’re a beginner, I would focus mainly on these two texts.

I’ve also compiled a list of sections of Lonergan’s Verbum, for the more experienced members. These sections should serve to illuminate some of the more complicated aspects of Lonergan’s cognitional theory, and should also demonstrate how Lonergan appropriates Thomist theories of cognition. I specifically picked sections that address some of the questions we had last week about St. Thomas’ theory, so we can see how Lonergan develops Thomist ideas. Let me know if you have any other suggestions to add to this list:

1. Chapter 1, Sections 2 (Definition) and 3 (Quod Quid Est). Here Lonergan describes the different types of questions one can ask of being.
2. Chapter 4. Here Lonergan breaks the act of understanding into immaterial assimilation, formative abstraction, and apprehensive abstraction. This threefold distinction between potency, form, and act is paralleled in the other levels of knowing, as Ron explained last meeting.

As usual, let’s have everyone think of a couple of questions to get the discussion rolling.

Since this is a lot of material, and since Br. Thomas Martin cannot make it on December 31, I would like to propose we meet on Saturday, January 14, at 10:00 AM. This is the Saturday of Martin Luther King weekend, so I’m assuming we’ll have a little extra time. Let me know if this works for you.

Paul Joseph Sweeney, obituary

As published in The Hour: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thehour/obituary.aspx?n=Paul-Joseph-Sweeney&pid=183026409
Paul Joseph Sweeney, 63, died on the evening of December 4, 2016, after a courageous three-year fight against cancer.
Born on March 15, 1953, in Providence, RI, he was the eldest of five children of the late Helen and James F. Sweeney, Jr.
Paul grew up in East Norwalk and graduated from Norwalk High School in 1971. He was a lifelong scholar, earning many degrees: BA in English Literature and Religion from Syracuse University; Master of Philosophy in both Buddhist Studies and in Theology from Columbia University, New York; and Masters in Information Science from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Many considered Paul a genius, with his deep understanding of hundreds of subjects, including world religions, Sanskrit and global issues. Yet, as his niece aptly described, “Paul never one-upped someone in a conversation. He wanted to learn and share knowledge.”
If you sat next to Paul at the dinner table, you were in for a wonderful dialogue. He was happiest when talking and connecting with people and learning what you had to say.
Paul was an accomplished Librarian for the Washington, DC Public Library System, which allowed him to unleash and perpetuate his love for community, ideas and research. He initiated lecture series and book clubs. He was an expert speaker on nonviolent movements around the world. This article describes Paul’s huge impact on the Library community and his beloved D.C. – www.dclibrary.org/node/12907. Paul was so passionate about books that his landlord put up a shed in the backyard to store his enormous collection.
In 2013, when diagnosed with cancer, he began a fearless campaign to get past it. Immediately, he researched and found the best treatment available at Johns Hopkins. While he endured the pitfalls of side effects, he never complained. When asked how he was doing, his answer was always “great.” In remission, he enjoyed a vibrant 2015, at work and at home.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned in May 2016, but undaunted, six weeks before his death, he talked about returning to the Library part time, to get back on his feet. When his brother cautioned him, he quipped, “What do you want me to do? Give up?”
Paul is survived by his three brothers and their wives: Jim and Loretta Sweeney of North Myrtle Beach, SC; Bill and Rebecca Sweeney of Norwalk and Ted and Kathi Sweeney of Auburn, PA, and his sister and her husband, Maureen and Jay Gulick of Huntington, CT. In addition, he is survived by his nieces and nephews and their families, all of whom were enriched by their conversations with Paul: Rachel and Jared Rouleau; Bridget Sweeney; Laura and Ian Leatherman; Brian and Kevin Sweeney; Michael and Deanna Gulick and Jenny Gulick. Also, he is survived by his dearest friends and co-workers in the D.C. area.
Special thanks to Paul’s brother Bill, who tirelessly devoted his time and love to Paul, as they navigated his valiant journey together with determination and grace.
Celebrations of Paul’s life will take place in Maryland and Norwalk in the new year. Contributions in his memory can be made to: Lonergan Institute, c/o Br. Dunstan Robidoux, St. Anselm’s Abbey, 4501 S. Dakota Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20017-2753.

Paul Sweeney, Requiescat in Pace

Please know, dear friends, that our friend and fellow reader and student, Paul Sweeney, age 63, has died, last Sunday evening at about 7:30 at the end of a long bout with cancer. Paul has been coming to meetings and seminars for many years and is greatly missed for his sense of humor and depth of understanding of things. Please pray for the repose of his dear soul and that he be with Our Lord ever joyful eternally. Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.  For an appreciation of Paul which appeared in 2011 see:


with love and blessings to all…

Judgment in Aristotle, two natures

As a qualification on how we are to understand judgment in Aristotle, please note that, in the kind of analysis which we find in Aristotle and also in the manner of his conceptualization and language, in our acts of judgment thus, a dual nature is distinguished or two natures are indicated in a way which seems to juxtapose one nature with another. Two natures exist instead of one nature. A synthetic, constructive element is alluded to, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, an affirmative, declarative element. Hence, questions exist (later questions were posed) which asked if Aristotle was successful in clearly distinguishing between the being of these two different aspects (existing as two distinct elements, each having its own distinct nature).1 Did he, in fact, clearly distinguish between acts of direct understanding and acts of reflective understanding which exist as acts of judgment since, in Aristotle, judgment engages in two different kinds of tasks. On the one hand, allegedly within our judgments, (1) a composition or a putting together of different concepts occurs or, on the other hand, a separation of concepts when we realize that some concepts should not be combined or joined with each other. If an act of direct understanding (which, as noted, Aristotle conceptualizes as an act of “simple apprehension”) moves through the instrumentality of an imagined fertile, apt image (existing as a phantasm) toward a single, distinct concept or a definition which expresses the fruit or the grasp of one’s prior act of understanding (in Aristotle’s understanding of the nature or the intelligibility of all our direct acts of understanding as we move from the being and the order of sense to the order and the being of understanding: ta men oun eidê to noêtikon en tois phantasmasi noei; the “intellect grasps forms in images”),2 a fortiori, if we should speak in this way about the being of a “simple apprehension,” then, to a greater degree, if we are to speak about how two or more concepts can be put together to reveal a greater unity or a link that exists between these concepts (leading to a larger, more general concept), then, in order to identify and to distinguish this species of intellectual act, we should or we must speak about the being of a “complex apprehension.” These exist allegedly as judgments. These judgments introduce an order which should exist among our ideas and concepts. However, if, for us, the intellectual object is not simply the apprehension of a conceptual complex unity but if, in fact, it is an understanding which wants to declare or know about the reality or the truth of one or more concepts (whether we should speak about simple concepts or about complex concepts), then, within this larger, greater, more demanding context, in Aristotle, a second understanding of judgment presents itself to us in terms of how it seeks to posit a relation or a synthesis which has been grasped by us in our prior acts of understanding. The object here is not essentially a synthesis, the apprehension or the grasp of a synthesis which points to a higher or a wider understanding of things but, instead, the taking of an already understood synthesis and further acts which would work toward an act of understanding which can conclude or move toward a declaration of its reality or a declaration of its truth (or which can deny the factuality of its reality or the factuality of its truth). This is so. This is not so. Either way, in affirmation or negation, a truth is known and it is grasped by us as known. In our awareness, a truth is known in terms of its reasonableness or cogency: hence, its being, its reality. The consciousness or experience that we have of evidence points to the being or the reality of a truth and, as an effect which would thus follow from this, with Aquinas, we would say about ourselves that “knowledge exists as one of the effects of truth” [cognitio est quidam veritatis effectus].3 The one comes from the other.

In Aristotle thus, depending on which passages or texts are being studied, a clear distinction does not exist between that which exists as understanding and that which exists as judgment (acts of direct understanding versus acts of reflective understanding) because judgment, in the language of “composition and division,” resembles acts of direct understanding in terms of the unities which are being grasped and understood by them (by our acts of understanding): unities which transcend pluralities and multiplicities as these exist initially among the givens of the data of our sense perception. However, in Aristotle, the being of judgments is such that they also seek to determine if a correspondence exists between that which exists as a form of mental synthesis within ourselves and that which exists as a species of real synthesis within the being of truly existing things (the being of truly existing objects). A real distinction accordingly exists between the type of answer that is given to this kind of question and the type of answer which is given to a question which asks about how concepts can be related to each other in ways that could lead to the understanding and eventually the expression of a new, more general concept.

On the basis then of this real distinction and as a species of new first principle, in the later work of Aquinas and also in the later work of Bernard Lonergan, clarifications were introduced into the thinking and the conceptuality of Aristotle’s analysis in a manner which attempted to introduce degrees of clarity that had not been too obvious to anyone or to most persons who had attempted earlier to read into the corpus of Aristotle’s philosophy in order to find, within it, a coherent understanding about how things exist within the reality of the world within which we all live (a reality which includes the kind of being which we have and which we are as human beings where our kind of being includes the kind of knowing which belongs to us as human beings and which does not belong to other kinds of living being). From an incoherent understanding about the nature of our human judgment (from an incoherent understanding about the nature of our human cognition), we can thus wonder if, for some in the subsequent history of reflection within philosophy, the result has been a defective, incoherent understanding about the nature of existing things where, in metaphysics, we turn to this science in order to move toward a comprehensive or a general understanding about the nature of all existing things qua the nature of being in general as it applies to all things which enjoy some form of real existence. What can be implied about the nature of our world if our point of departure is a particular belief or a particular understanding about the nature of our human knowing, an understanding which could be lacking in the degree of rationality which should belong to it?4

1Lonergan, Verbum, pp. 61-62.

2Aristotle, De Anima, 3, 7, 431b, as cited by Sala, Lonergan and Kant, p. 161, n. 72.

3Aquinas, De veritate, q. 1, a. 1, as cited by Sala, Lonergan and Kant, p. 147, n. 71.

4Randall, Aristotle, p. 6.

Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, Notes

Notes on Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a, q. 84

ST 1.84: How does the human intellect know bodies (which are beneath it)

ST 1.84.1 Does the soul know bodies through the intellect

Objection 1: Bodies are understood by the senses, incorporeals by the intellect

Reply: This refers to the medium of knowledge, not the object

Objection 2: Sense:Intelligible :: Intellect:Sensible.  Since senses can’t understand intelligible things, the intellect can’t understand sensible things

Reply: Intellect is a higher power than sense.  While sense cannot know intelligibles, intellect can know sensibles.  Otherwise God wouldn’t have knowledge of sensibles.

Objection 3: Intellect understands eternal and unchangeable things, while bodies are always changing

Reply: Every movement presupposes something immovable.    Changing form requires unchanging matter.  Changing matter requires unchanging form.  Socrates may not always be sitting, but it is always true that when he does sit he stays in one place.


On the contrary: natural science, with its studies of motion and matter, would be impossible if the intellect had no knowledge of changeable things.


One possible answer: Certain Presocratics (Heraclitus) thought everything was in a state of flux, so certain knowledge of anything was impossible.

Refutation: Heraclitus was only led to this conclusion because of their reductive materialism.


Another possible answer: Plato’s theory of forms



  1. If forms are immaterial and immovable, how can we have knowledge of matter and motion?
  2. Plato begs the question: How can we know bodies, if we only know them through separate substances which differ essentially from them?
  3. Plato assumed that the form must exist in the knower in the same mode as in the thing known.  This is not true.


Whiteness is in bodies in different modes of intensity

The senses receive whiteness without receiving matter

The intellect receives whiteness under conditions of immateriality and immobility


ST 1.84.2 Does the soul know bodies through its essence?

It would seem so.  Knowledge is by assimilation, where the intellect “becomes” whatever essence it is to know.  Thus, the intellect knows all things by the essence it has assimilated, which essence has become the intellect’s own essence.


But Augustine says we know things through our senses.


Presocratic view: the material intellect receives forms materially


  1. Matter is only form potentially, and knowledge is of actualized form
  2. Why doesn’t matter outside the soul possess knowledge?


Platonist view: The immaterial soul receives forms immaterially


Only God knows things through his own essence; humans and angels don’t


ST 1.84.3 Does the soul know through innate species?

Our knowledge is different from angelic knowledge.  Our knowledge must be brought into act, while angelic knowledge is always in act.  Moreover, the angelic intellect is completed by the angelic form and is not in potentiality with respect to anything.  The human intellect is in potentiality with respect to things it does not know.  Prime matter is in potentiality with respect to its substantial form.


ST 1.84.4 Are intelligible species derived by the soul from separate forms?

The objections proceed by analogy from sense, also noting that the intellect requires something actually intelligible in order to be brought into act.

But if we know by separate forms, there is no reason why our souls should be united to bodies.  Both Plato and Avicenna’s views are considered and deemed insufficient for explaining the existence of the body.


In replying to the objections, St. Thomas says there is no analogy between sense and intellect.  He concedes that divine ideas are the ultimate source of our knowledge, but we attain to this knowledge by the actualization of phantasms by agent intellect.


ST 1.84.5 Does the intellect know material things in the eternal types?

St. Thomas states that Augustine was “imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists.”


St. Thomas makes a distinction:

  1. Knowing the eternal types as objects.  The souls of the blessed know things in the eternal types in this way.
  2. Having the eternal types as a principle of knowledge.  Just as our senses see by the light of the sun, our intellect sees by the intellectual light which is in us, even as pilgrims.


The human intellect requires both intelligible species and intellectual light in order to know.


St. Thomas shows that Augustine was not as Platonist as he originally seemed.


ST 1.84.6 Is intellectual knowledge derived from sensible things?

Augustine’s argument that intellectual knowledge does not come from the senses

  1. Sensible things are always changing, but what is never the same cannot be perceived
  2. We cannot tell through the senses whether we are seeing a real image or whether we are seeing an imaginary image (dreaming), but the intellect is capable of perceiving truth
  3. What is lesser cannot act on what is greater, so the senses cannot produce knowledge in the intellect
  4. We know some immaterial things


Democritus thought all knowledge was by a discharge of atoms


Plato thought the soul forms within itself the species, after the sensible organ receives the sensible object.  The soul is roused by the species of the thing.

Augustine said the body was the messenger to the soul.

The senses rouse the intellect to the act of understanding.


Aristotle said sense is an act not of the soul alone, but of the “composite.”  The sensible is received in the sense by a discharge or some other operation.  Then agent intellect derives the phantasm and ultimately the intelligible species from the sensory input.


Sensible things are only the material cause of knowledge.  Agent intellect is also required.


ST 1.84.7 Can we understand without turning to phantasm?

No, because:

  1. When imagination is hindered by frenzy or lethargy, all intellectual operation is also hindered.
  2. We all understand by forming phantasms to serve as examples
  3. It belongs to a nature to exist in an individual.  This cannot happen apart from corporeal matter.  Since we apprehend the individual through phantasm, we need phantasm in order to see the universal nature existing in the individual.


Interesting facts:

When knowledge is not actualized, intelligible species dwell in the passive intellect.

The intelligible species is NOT the likeness of the individual thing.

Our intellect’s proper and proportionate object is the nature of a sensible thing (?)


ST 1.85.1: Does our intellect understand corporeal and material things by abstaction from phantasm?

3 grades of cognitive powers:

  1. Sense organ: object is form existing in individual matter
  2. Human intellect: object is form existing in individual matter, but not AS existing in this particular matter
  3. Angelic intellect: object is form existing apart from matter

2 types of abstractions

  1. Composition or division, i. e. Judgement of truth or falsehood
  2. Simple or absolute consideration: consider something and prescind from its principles of individuation

3 types of matter:

  1. Individual (“this flesh and these bones”)
  2. Common/signate (“flesh and bones”)
  3. Common intelligible matter (quantity, number, dimension, figure)

(things like “being,” “unity,” “power,” “act” abstracted from all matter)


The phantasms are made more fit for the abstraction therefrom by intelligible intentions.”


ST 1.85.2: Are intelligible species the object of our intellection?

No, intelligible species are the species qua, not species quae intelligitur.

Otherwise, science would be about words, not things.


Also, we would have no way of judging the truth or falsity of our ideas.


Intelligible species is a likeness of the thing understood, as heat in the heater is a likeness of the thing heated


Abstract universal exists in the mind, but the universal which is understood exists in its instantiations.


2 operations of the sensitive part:

  1. Impression (totally passive)
  2. Formation (imagination, active)

2 operations of the intellect

  1. Impression (passive intellect receives intelligible species)
  2. Formation (active intellect forms definition or judgement)

ST 1.85.3 Whether knowledge of the most universal species is prior?

Sense knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge.  Therefore in some manner we know the particular first.

However, in the intellect we know what animals are, albeit indistinctly, before we can distinguish rational animals from non-rational animals.


In the senses, we know something is a body before it gets close enough to be known as an animal.  A child calls all men father before he learns to distinguish his father.  Therefore, universal sense knowledge is prior.


Something’s genus is derived from its common matter; the species comes from the form.  Nature ultimately intends the species, not the genus.


ST 1.85.4 Whether we can understand multiple things at once?

No, just as an object cannot have multiple colors at once, an intellect cannot have multiple intelligible species at once


We can, however, understand multiple things in a single species


ST 1.85.5 Whether our intellect understands by composition and division?

Yes, because our intellects achieve perfection by degrees.  We must make a judgement (i. E. a composition or division) about the state of our knowledge in order to attain more perfect knowledge.


Intellectual operations are in time insofar as we have to turn to phantasms


2 types of composition in a material thing

  1. Form with individual matter: Man is an animal (form with common matter); Socrates is a man (individual matter with form)
  2. Substance with accident: Socrates is white (Socrates as a man possessing whiteness)


2 types of composition in the intellect

  1. The whole with the part (form/species with common matter/genus)
  2. Subject predicated of accident (identification of Socrates with whiteness)


ST 1.86.6 Can the intellect be false?

The intellectual light cannot err, because the proper object of intellect is the quiddity of the thing.  Provided we are abstracting quiddities from phantasm or deriving first principles from the operation of the intellect itself, the intellect cannot be false.


In composition or division, the intellect can err.


ST 1.86.7 Can one man understand better than another?

  1. No, in the sense that all men understand through the same intelligible species.  Either you have the intelligible species or you don’t.
  2. Yes, in the sense that one man may perceive the intelligible species with greater keenness than another, as a man with 20-20 vision will see visible objects better than another.
  3. Yes, in the sense that intellect’s operation depends on the sensitive and imaginative faculties.  Someone with a better memory, for instance, can understand things better.


ST 1.86.8 Is the indivisible known before the divisible?

  1. Yes, in the sense that we know a quiddity indistinctly as a unity before we know it distinctly by understanding its parts.
  2. Yes, in the sense that we know simple quiddities of things before we engage in complex composition or division.
  3. No, in the sense that abstractions like “point” or “unity” are known only by privation.  A point is “something which has no parts.”  We know things with parts before we can consider something without parts.  This is because these concepts are opposed to natural, corporeal reality.