Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is something of a rarity, in that it is widely acknowledged as a classic, and equally widely read and taught, while at the same time its anthropological, political, and philosophical claims are almost universally dismissed.
Rousseau doesn’t pretend to be an anthropologist, and frequently qualifies his claims about uncivilized man by pointing out their dubious historicity:
Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into, in treating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin; just like the hypotheses which our physicists daily form respecting the formation of the world.
Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (referred to hereafter as the Second Discourse), then, was never intended as a history—much less a scientific work or a program for political action. Let us consider, briefly, the circumstances that inspired its composition. Such context, I think, will prove illuminating, and demonstrate why a different sort of engagement with the text is more valuable than knee-jerk criticism.
In the introduction to the Washington Square Press edition, translator Lester G. Crocker writes:
In the autumn of 1749, while Rousseau was trudging through the prison of Vincennes to visit his friend, Diderot, a stroke of chance roused him from the aimlessness and discouragement in which he had been floundering. Leafing through the pages of the Mercure de France during a brief rest on the roadside, he fell upon the subject of a prize essay, announced by the Academy of Dijon: “Has the reestablishment of science and the arts contributed to purifying or corrupting morals?” He was rooted to the spot, inflamed by his great inspiration. In a moment, he had set upon the unique path he was thereafter to follow, stubbornly and alone, through bitterness and misery, until the end of his days. “The instant I read it,” he tells us in his Confessions, “I saw another universe and I became another man.” To be more exact, he became the man that he really was, the maladjusted rebel.
This places the Second Discourse in a territory quite removed from political philosophy. Viewed in this light, it is the record of a spiritual awakening. Like any dreamer just roused, Rousseau’s impressions were fragmentary and unclear—by his own admission, they served at best to give a sense of the conditions in which he, as a civilized man, found himself.
Anatomy of A Nightmare
If the reasoning by which he accounts for the many centuries of bloodshed, suffering, and oppression is specious, and if little in the way of a solution is provided, this in no way diminishes the value of his work. What Rousseau accomplishes, and this is no mean feat, is to place the nightmarish aspects of civilization into sharp relief, and, what is perhaps most impressive, to argue that these vices are inseparable from whatever benefits progress might bring.
It is easy to snipe at the Second Discourse centuries removed from its publication, especially before arguments that seem, to our age, ridiculous. In Part I, for example, he wonders if “in the countries where the art of medicine is most neglected, the mean duration of man’s life is less than in those where it is most cultivated.” While taking care to avoid “the vain and false declamations which most healthy people pronounce against medicine,” he asks if, in a state so far removed from nature, we “give ourselves more diseases than medicine can furnish remedies.”
In support of this thesis—which, in charity, ought to be read as a tentative one—Rousseau informs us that “it is easy to learn from hunters whether they meet with many infirm animals in the course of the chase.” One might rightly wonder about the identity of these hunters, who, while they may have observed little in the way of infirmity, frequently encountered creatures “that have had bones or even limbs broken, but have been healed without any other surgical assistance than that of time, or any other regimen than that of their ordinary life.” From this meager data, he concludes that:
At the same time their cures seem not to have been less perfect, for their not having been tortured by incisions, poisoned with drugs, or wasted by fasting. In short, however useful medicine, properly administered, may be among us, it is certain that, if the savage, when he is sick and left to himself, has nothing to hope but from nature, he has, on the other hand, nothing to fear but from his disease; which renders his situation often preferable to our own.
Whatever the deficiencies of eighteenth-century medicine, and they were surely many, it is passages like these, I think, that engendered the derision the treatise has received. Voltaire, for example, in a letter, told Rousseau:
I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it.<…> No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on all fours. However, as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it…
This characterization—that the Second Discourse recommends we quit society, and resume the role of hunter-gatherers—is one that Rousseau addressed, and dismissed, in the notes he appended to the text. There, he writes:
What then? Is it necessary to destroy societies, eliminate yours and mine, and return to live in the forests with the bears? A conclusion in the style of my adversaries, one I prefer to anticipate rather than allow them the shame of inferring. O you, to whom the heavenly voice has not made itself heard and who do not recognize any purpose for your species other than to conclude this short life in peace, you who in the midst of cities can leave your fatal acquisitions, your restless minds, your corrupted hearts, and your frantic desires, since it depends on you, take back your ancient and first innocence. […] As for men like me, whose passions have forever destroyed their original simplicity, who can no longer nourish themselves on grass and acorns or do without laws and leaders […] They will respect the sacred bonds of the societies of which they are members; they will love their fellow men and will serve them with all their power; they will scrupulously obey the laws and the men who are their authors and ministers; above all, they will honour the good and wise princes who will know how to prevent, cure, or mitigate this host of abuses and evils always ready to overwhelm us.
Civilization is a genie that cannot be rebottled. The Second Discourse, as I read it, seems more of a lament than a call to action. But what, precisely, is being mourned? Rousseau is far more careful, and far more poignant, in accounting for the consequences of this loss than in describing its nature.
This loss is a spiritual one. Religious questions are actively, if tactfully, avoided by Rousseau. Had he viewed his subject through a lens less secular, his assessment of man in a “primitive” state would take on an entirely different character.
The Unnatural State
If we follow the progress of inequality in these different revolutions, we will find that the establishment of law and the right of property was its first stage, the institution of the magistracy was the second, and the third and last was the transformation of legitimate power into arbitrary power, so that the condition of the rich and poor was authorized by the first age, that of the powerful and the weak by the second, and that of master and slave by the third, which is the final degree of inequality and the limit to which all the others eventually lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government entirely or move it closer to a legitimate institution.
Rousseau’s criticisms of civilization are so well known, and so extensively written about, that my account of them here will be brief. An analysis of the above passage will give readers unfamiliar with his text a broad grasp of the argument.
Three stages of civilization are described above. In each stage, a different, and progressively more pernicious, inequality is established. Outlined is a template for the birth, growth, and dissolution of societies, regardless of size of era.
The right of property, which marks the first stage, authorizes “the condition of the rich and poor.” If there is no property, if the goods of the earth are not seen as belonging to anyone in particular, but are offered freely to all, then the legal distinction between the haves and have-nots would cease to be.
Rousseau points out, perhaps anticipating his critics, that inequality is not merely social. Individuals differ from one another in myriad ways, and factors like physical strength would prove advantageous in a world where no law bound us. In such a world, we might assume that the strongest would win out and the weak swiftly perish, but the Second Discourse does not:
I always hear it repeated that the strongest will oppress the weak. But let someone explain to me what they mean by this word oppression. Some will dominate with violence; others will groan, enslaved to all their whims. That is precisely what I observe among us. But I do not see how that could be said of savage men, since it would be very difficult even to make them understand what servitude and domination are.
Are we to believe that, in this hypothetical “savage” state, since there is no concept of “servitude” or “domination,” there would be neither masters nor slaves? Terms are invented, after all, to name things perceived, so these elements of human experience, however unfortunate they may be, must surely have preceded our naming them.
According to the Second Discourse, the more primitive forms of oppression, before the advent of society—or even, it seems, of language—are of quite a different and more benign sort. Of course, the stronger can steal the what the weaker has. A gruesome struggle may ensue for the spoils of a hunt, and the loser might forfeit his life in defense of his meal. “But,” Rousseau asks, “how will [the stronger] ever succeed in making another man obey him, and what could be the chains of dependency among men who do not possess anything?”
It is these chains of dependency that bind us to far more malignant, and far more enduring, forms of inequality. Slavery, poverty, and warfare only make sense in a world where people and things can be possessed; for those who own nothing, such activities are meaningless.
Assuming the weaker is not killed, he can simply fly from the conflict once his dinner is pilfered. If he is harassed in a field, he can walk to a forest; if harassed in a forest, he can climb a tree. Should the stronger get it into his mind to oppress this weaker fellow, he would have to remain ever watchful. Turn his back, and his slave runs away. There is no court to which the stronger might appeal, no shackle he is capable of forging to root his neighbor in place. Should the stronger man fall asleep, the weaker will find the nearest stone to crush his master’s skull. There is no police to arrest the killer, no concept of murder, and thus no crime for which he might be hanged.
After law and the right of property arose, it was necessary to have a means of enforcing the former and protecting the latter. The magistrate, on whom fell this responsibility, could be a single person or several.
We are told that the form a government took was derived from the differences among its members. If one person possessed more than all others, they became the monarch. If a small group held more than the masses, an aristocracy was born. Among peoples “least removed from the state of nature,” whose “fortune and talents” were relatively equal, democracies were founded. In the course of time, magistracies of all kinds undergo a process of corruption:
In these various governments, all the magistrates were at first elected, and if wealth did not win out, preference was given to merit, which confers a natural pre-eminence, and to age, which provides experience in business and composure in deliberations. The Hebrew elders, the Gerontes in Sparta, the Senate in Rome, and even the etymology of our word Seigneur show how much old age was respected in earlier times. The more the elections fell to men of advanced age, the more frequent they became, and the more problems people experienced with them. Intrigues were introduced, factions formed, parties grew embittered, civil wars broke out, and finally the blood of citizens was sacrificed for the alleged happiness of the state. People were on the verge of falling back into the anarchy of earlier times.
It is at this point that those in power, spotting an opportunity to advance their station, made the magistracy hereditary. Apparently, as the population was “already accustomed to dependency, repose, and the conveniences of life, and already beyond the point where they could break their chains,” they acquiesced to this profound shift.
In the proceeding generations, those born into power considered it their birthright. With this mindset, the conclusion that those over whom they rule are their property, no different from land or cattle, would easily follow. This course, from leaders who, if not perfect, are appointed in a manner both reasonable and just, to decadence and despotism, is one which all nations are destined to follow.
Rousseau observes that “the vices which make social institutions necessary are the same which make their abuse inevitable.” Laws arise from a desire to quell the antisocial impulses they restrict, and “laws in general are not as strong as the passions.” In a society in which all were able to behave rightly in regard to their neighbors, neither laws nor magistrates would be useful.
The fact that we apparently need both speaks to a flaw in human nature, one that the state, no matter how noble the intent of its founders, cannot check forever:
Political distinctions necessarily lead to civil distinctions. The growing inequality between the people and its leaders soon makes itself felt among individuals and is modified in them in a thousand ways according to passions, talents, and events.
The emergence of any power dynamic entails, by its very definition, the establishment of a hierarchy. Once this hierarchy isn’t determined by the group, in light of some obvious merit (the experience of age, unusual competence or virtue, etc.), the magistrate becomes illegitimate.
As this power, like all power, cannot be created or maintained in a vacuum, the magistrate must enlist the aid of helpers equally unscrupulous (and equally ambitious). This is dynamic is a malignant one, as “citizens do not let themselves be oppressed except to the extent that they are led on by blind ambition […] and they consent to carry chains in order to give them out in their turn.”
Rousseau didn’t take his anthropology particularly seriously. It was a tool that allowed him to expose the pervasive flaws that he considered inherent to civilization.
The contrast he drew to “primitive” man was not be an exercise in nostalgia—by his own own admission, his investigation was not concerned with “historical truths.” Rather, by placing civilized man beside a counterpart closer to nature, he could articulate forms of suffering conditioned by society.
In the Second Discourse, there is a reluctance to view this suffering through a spiritual lens. Had its author taken a less secular approach, it would be clear that his assessment is far from original.
In an enigmatic passage, Rousseau identifies the origins of language and abstract thought as the genesis of our dilemma. He speculates that, once our grunts, belches, and vague gestures developed into a shared system of words:
Every object at first received a particular name, without regard to genus and species, something which those first inventors of language were not in a position to distinguish, and all the individual things presented themselves to their minds as isolated instances, as they do in the picture of nature. If one oak tree was called A, another oak tree was called B. For the first idea one derives from two things is that they are not the same.
We take ideas for granted. Say we’re one of Rousseau’s primitive men, and that we have two primitive neighbors living nearby—one named Billy, and another named Carol. That Billy and Carol are two distinct things is obvious—even if they stand right next to one another, they don’t occupy the same space; they possess obvious anatomical differences; and they grunt and belch in tones distinctly their own.
Now let’s imagine that a cruel, smelly, syphilitic Spanish explorer wanders into our little paradise. For all his flaws, he’s got the gift of language. He’s barely educated, but could easily explain that Billy and Carol are humans, and that humans, like cats or mice, are animals.
He could easily explain, that is, if you shared a language, but you don’t. And it’s not a simple problem of translation—you’d have to understand how Billy and Carol both fit into the category of “human,” and how humans, mice, and cats fit into the category of “animal.” To group particular phenomena into a general category requires a capacity of abstraction entirely foreign to you. How, then, did these first abstractions arise?
The inconvenience of all this nomenclature could not have been easily removed, for to arrange beings under common and generic denominations, it was necessary to know their properties and their differences. It required observations and definitions, that is, natural history and metaphysics, a great deal more than the men of those times could have had.
Let’s imagine that all of these observations and definitions, this natural history and metaphysics and a great deal more, somehow occurred to one of these primitive persons. Say they worked it all out, and, were they able to write, could have composed a systematic philosophy to rival Aristotle’s. Perhaps it was all worked out many times, in many different minds—in each case, this knowledge died with its discoverer. While the discovery would constitute an immense step forward in human thought, its transmission to others would be a revolution. This is because, Rousseau writes, “general ideas cannot be introduced into the mind except with the help of words, and the understanding does not grasp them except by propositions.”
You, as a hypothetical primitive man, couldn’t explain to Billy or Carol that they are both humans without the word “human.” And for Billy and Carol to understand the word “human” as meaning “a bipedal primate…etc.,” the three of you would need shared definitions not just of “human,” but of “bipedal,” “primate,” the article “a,” the concept of an indefinite article, and any other words comprising the definition of “human.”
If that sounds exhausting, take a deep breath, because you’ve got much more work to do. To make matters as easy as possible, you simply tell them, “You are human.” This little sentence contains a subject (“you”) and a predicate (“are human”). The subject is plural, so Carol and Billy ought to know that you are addressing both of them with the pronoun “you.” In order to do so, they’ll need to understand both pronouns and the concept of plurality. Once they’ve made it past that hurdle—assuming they haven’t fallen asleep, walked away, or (perhaps justifiably) picked up the nearest stone to brain you—they’ll need to understand what a predicate is.
It’s hardly a matter of explaining that “are human” is the predicate of your sentence. If Carol or Billy ask what “are” means, you could answer that it is a verb of being, but then you’d be in real trouble, because after you’d related what a verb is, you would be tasked with offering a discourse on the idea of being. After all of this, you’d still be in for a marathon. And during the process, you’d wouldn’t be able to point to anything in the physical world to clarify:
Every general idea is purely intellectual. Once the imagination gets involved in the slightest, the idea immediately becomes particular. Try to draw for yourself the image of a tree in general. You will never succeed. In spite of you, it must be seen as small or large, sparse or leafy, light or dark, and if you were able to see there only what is found in every tree, that image would no longer resemble a tree. Purely abstract entities are seen in the same manner or are conceived only through language. […]
The origins of language are a question that Rousseau seems reluctant to answer. He is puzzled, and understandably so—the problem appears to demand a superhuman solution:
I stop with these first steps, and I beg my judges to suspend their reading here, in order to consider, in this matter of the invention of physical substantives alone, that is to say, of the part of language easiest to discover, the road language still has to travel to express all the thoughts of men, to take on a constant form, to be able to be spoken in public, and to influence society. I beg them to reflect on the time and knowledge it must have required to discover numbers, abstract words, aorists, and all the verb tenses, particles, and syntax, to connect propositions and arguments, and to form all the logic of discourse. As for me, scared off by the multiplying difficulties and convinced of the almost proven impossibility that languages could have arisen and established themselves by purely human means, I leave the discussion of the following difficult problem to whoever wishes to undertake it: Which was more necessary, that society be already in place for the institution of languages or that languages be already invented for the establishment of society?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.John 1:1-5 (NRSVUE)
This is how the Gospel of John opens. These verses, old as they are, echo traditions still more ancient. In the Hebrew Bible, God speaks the world into existence, and Moses transmits the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people through the medium of writing.
In Exodus 31, Moses is told to charge Bezalel with the construction of the ark of the covenant, along with the tent, vessels, and other sacred objects. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 55a, we find:
Bezalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created. From where do we derive this? It is written here in praise of Bezalel: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship” (Exodus 31:3); and it is written there with regard to creation of heaven and earth: “The Lord, by wisdom, founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19), and it is written: “By His knowledge the depths were broken up and the skies drop down the dew” (Proverbs 3:20). We see that wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, the qualities with which the heavens and earth were created, are all found in Bezalel.
For these rabbis, letters existed before there were human eyes to read them. Indeed, they not only precede heaven and earth, but are the instruments by which the world was fashioned.
Even today, the word is given a unique place in Jewish worship. Here we find an elegant description of the reverence paid the Torah Scrolls:
The aron kodesh (“holy ark”), where the Torah Scrolls are kept, is situated in the front of the synagogue. In the Sephardic tradition, it is referred to as the heichal (“chamber”). The ark is the holiest place in the synagogue.
The ark is opened only during special prayers and when removing the Torah to read during prayer services. It is customary (but not obligatory) to stand when the ark is opened.
This line of thought is maintained in the Islamic tradition. Surah 96 of the Qur’an opens with these verses:
Read: In the Name of your Lord who created.
Created man from a clot.
Read: And your Lord is the Most Generous.
He who taught by the pen.
Taught man what he never knew.
As Muslims believe no translation of the Qur’an is possible, this passage is considered an interpretation. “Read” has been rendered by others as “recite” or “proclaim.”
It is notable that these are understood to be the first words of revelation Muhammad received. It is more notable that, when commanded by Gabriel to “read,” Muhamad is said to have answered, “I cannot read!” If we replace “read” with “recite” or “proclaim,” this reply, at least initially, makes little sense.
A commentary helps illuminate matters. Muhammad is understood by tradition to be illiterate. Were he asked to repeat what he’d just heard, we cannot imagine that he’d have any trouble doing so. It is apparent, then, that “the Angel had presented these words of the revelation before him in the written form.”
That there is a sacred element in language is by no means exclusive to Abrahamic religions. Among the Egyptians, there was a similar sense that the word was spiritual in its origin and nature:
The influence of religious concepts upon hieroglyphic writing is attested in at least two common usages. First, in the 3rd millennium, certain signs were avoided or were used in garbled form in grave inscriptions for fear that the living beings represented by these signs could harm the deceased who lay helpless in the grave. Among these taboo symbols were human figures and dangerous animals, such as scorpions and snakes. Second, in all periods and for all uses of the writing, symbols to which a positive religious significance was attached were regularly placed in front of other signs, even if they were to be read after them. Among these were hieroglyphs for God or individual gods as well as those for the king or the palace. […] Moreover, theology traced the invention of hieroglyphic writing back to the god Thoth, although this myth of its divine origin did not have an effect on the development of the script.
In Hinduism, there is a tradition that the Vedas have always existed. They have a cosmic significance. According to World History Encyclopedia:
The Vedas […] are thought to reproduce the exact sounds of the universe itself at the moment of creation and onwards and so take the form, largely, of hymns and chants. In reciting the Vedas, one is thought to be literally participating in the creative song of the universe which gave birth to all things observable and unobservable from the beginning of time.
In the Second Discourse, Rousseau bangs his head against a seeming paradox. Society could not, it seems, precede language: in order to maintain any stable bonds between persons, communication much more complex than grunts, belches, and gestures was necessary.
However, in order for language to develop, there had to be a system of grammar and a shared vocabulary, both of which require abstract thought—in his understanding of the primitive state, such effort, even if it did yield results, would hardly be worth the trouble. Those who have never borne the social yoke wouldn’t require community any more than “a monkey or a wolf would of a creature like itself.” (Rousseau, who died before he could watch the Discovery Channel, was apparently unaware that wolves and monkeys are not solitary animals.) Even if one man did have such a need, how could he compel his neighbor to meet it? Having no words, and no concept of the interrogative tense, he couldn’t form a question.
As we’ve seen above, there are a great many spiritual traditions that provide an answer to this seeming conundrum—one that the author of the Second Discourse either neglected, or went to considerable lengths to avoid. If we accept the premise that language—and the abstractions upon which it is grounded—did not, in Rousseau’s words, arise by “purely human means,” but rather came from God, we will arrive at a much clearer sense of the cause of our disease, and how it will ultimately be cured.
Our Fallen Nature
The source and ground of our distractive thoughts is the fragmented state of our memory. The memory was originally simple and one-pointed, but as a result of the fall its natural powers have been perverted: it has lost its recollectedness in God and has become compound instead of simple, diversified instead of one-pointed.On Commandments and Doctrines, St. Gregory of Sinai
Imagination and Intellect
Before proceeding, we, with Rousseau, must insist upon “laying facts aside,” and on emphasizing that our analysis is not concerned with “historical truths,” at least not in the (reductive, myopic) sense that these terms are used today. Whether the biblical creation narrative is viewed literally or allegorically is immaterial to our goal.
In the second chapter of Genesis, we read that Adam “gave names to all cattle and to the birds of the air and to every animal of the field.” While Adam was a particular man, he was the only one of his kind—in Adam, the individual and the species were one. Adam didn’t develop language out of a desire to communicate with his neighbors.
The fitful, agonizing, generations-long process of working out a vocabulary, grammar, and so forth wasn’t something the first man had to endure. Rather, he seems to have been immediately gifted with this most extraordinary capacity.
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, an eighteenth-century Orthodox mystic, provides some insight:
The first-formed man, Adam, was created by God without imagination. His mind, pure and unified, functioned as mind and so itself acquired no impression or form under the influence of the senses or from the images of sensory things. Making no use of this lower power of the imagination, he did not visualize the outline, color, shape, or dimensions of things, but with the higher power of the soul, that is the intellect, he contemplated immaterially, purely, and spiritually only the bare, simple inner principles of beings.
What does it mean to be created “without imagination”? It sounds, at least to a modern ear, like a dreadful state. St. Nicodemus appears to be distinguishing here between the imagination and the intellect. Understanding this distinction is essential for anyone seeking a knowledge of traditional Christian spirituality.
According to Catholic Encyclopedia, “Imagination is the faculty of representing to oneself sensible objects independently of an actual impression of those objects on our senses.” Through imagination, we are able to compose a mental image. While “mental image” might seem synonymous with “idea,” it is not.
There are two types of imagination: retentive and creative. When we remember a moment from our past, we are employing retentive imagination. In using the creative imagination, we are able to construct objects, or even whole scenes, that never occurred.
The imagination, for all its usefulness, is incapable of comprehending generalities. If we recall a passage cited above, we can see that Rousseau was aware of this limitation:
Every general idea is purely intellectual. Once the imagination gets involved in the slightest, the idea immediately becomes particular. Try to draw for yourself the image of a tree in general. You will never succeed. In spite of you, it must be seen as small or large, sparse or leafy, light or dark, and if you were able to see there only what is found in every tree, that image would no longer resemble a tree.
Images come to us first through sensation. The imagination can take the recalled sensations and reproduce them in the form of a memory, or modify them in a creative way, rendering a new image. However, the process of abstracting from particular trees seen (then imagined), into the general idea of “tree” belongs to a higher faculty: the intellect.
Clearly, But In A Mirror
If Adam was made “without imagination,” this process of sensation, followed by imagination, culminating in abstraction would not be the route by which he arrived at ideas. How, then, could he name?
According to St. Nicodemus, he had no need to “visualize the outline, color, shape, or dimensions of things.” Instead, he was able to grasp “immaterially, purely, and spiritually only the bare, simple inner principles of beings” with the intellect.
He we are faced with another dilemma. If Adam was in direct communion with God, bestowed with a clear knowledge of his goodness, as well as an objective understanding of the consequences of his actions, it seems inconceivable that he would have fallen.
Aquinas, who speculated along similar lines as St. Nicodemus, provides some insight. “Every nature,” he writes, “has something ultimate in which its final perfection consists.” The “perfection” of an acorn, for example, consists in its flourishing as a tree. As man is a rational being, his perfection “consists only in the act of understanding.”
This act of understanding, if it is to be most perfect, must be directed toward the object which is most good, beautiful, and true. The final end to which human beings are directed, then, is the knowledge of God. Knowledge, real knowledge, doesn’t stop at sense-perception–for a thing to be seen for what it truly is, it must pierce through the imagination to the intellect.
If Adam was created without imagination, does it follow that he would be able to apprehend God intellectually, knowing him in his essence? According to Aquinas, the only humans to reach such a state are the blessed souls in heaven. If Adam saw in the way they do, he would be perfect–and, if Adam were perfect, he could not have fallen.
Adam, we are told, “was still on the way to beatitude.” Adam’s capacity for knowledge, though still imperfect, was far greater than ours. We can understand Adam’s peculiar way of knowing by analogy:
In a given sight a threefold medium can be discerned. One is the medium under which it is seen; the second that by which it is seen, and this is the intentional likeness of the thing seen; the third is that from which one obtains knowledge of the thing seen.
Let’s imagine we’re sitting on a patio, on a sunny day, looking at a pitcher of lemonade resting on a table between us. The medium under which the pitcher is seen is light–in the total absence of light, no matter how close the pitcher is, we would not be able to see it.
The medium by which the pitcher is seen is “the sensible species itself of the thing existing in the eye.” The pitcher, thankfully, doesn’t need to be inside of our eye for us to see it. Rather, a “sensible species” of the pitcher is taken in by our visual faculty. Although the pitcher is visible and we see it, our recognition of it as a pitcher, and of its contents as lemonade, requires another medium.
This third medium, we are told, “is like a mirror, from which the eye at times receives the species of some visible thing, for example, a stone, and not from the stone itself.” The image of the pitcher formed in the imagination, from which the intellect abstracts ideas, isn’t the pitcher itself. Our sensation and imagination form an intelligible species that reflect the real-world object.
Aquinas tells us that “intellectual sight” follows the same pattern:
We find these three in intellectual sight, too. Thus, the light of the agent intellect corresponds to physical light as the medium under which our understanding sees. The intelligible species, by which the possible intellect is made actually to understand, corresponds to the visible species. And, finally, the effects from which we come to a knowledge of a cause correspond to the medium from which knowledge of the thing seen is obtained, as from a mirror.
The intellect is both active and passive in its operation. In its active phase, the agent intellect is that which performs the abstraction upon the sensible species, allowing us to know that the pitcher is a pitcher, is made of glass, is cold, and so forth. The possible intellect, as passive, receives these forms, just as the eye receives the sensible species in seeing the pitcher. We come to understand what the pitcher is not from the pitcher itself, but through its mirrored form in our intellect.
What Adam Knew
To know God, according to Aquinas, fallen man “needs a medium which is like a mirror, in which there arises a likeness of God himself.” He cites Romans 20, which reads, in part:
Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.
In our condition, we come to knowledge of God through a triple medium: “creatures themselves, from which he rises to knowledge of God; a likeness of God, which he gets from creatures; and a light from which he receives the perfection of being directed toward God.”
Our present state is a disordered one. Our souls, distracted by sensible phenomena, are easily taken by desire, and drawn away from contemplation of spiritual things. Before the fall, Adam wasn’t so vulnerable. In the Summa, Aquinas notes that in Adam, “the lower powers were subjected to the higher, and the higher nature was made so as not to be impeded by the lower.” Thus, “the first man was not impeded by exterior things from a clear and steady contemplation of the intelligible effects which he perceived by the radiation of the first truth.”
In Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, we are told that Adam “saw God through a spiritual light which was given to the human mind by God, and which was a kind of expressed likeness of the uncreated light.” This, while still not a direct vision of God in his essence, made Adam’s sight, and what he saw, of a far higher order than ours.
Then Face To Face
From Whence We Speak
In the Second Discourse, society and all its ills presuppose a shared language, which itself requires a capacity for abstract thought. Rousseau may be baffled by the origins of this singular ability (one which distinguishes us from other animals, and without which no civilization, not even the most “primitive,” could be possible) but the Aquinas and Nicodemus are not.
Rousseau’s assertion that civilization needs a shared language seems self evident. Why, when we rise above mere animal existence, and achieve for ourselves a degree of security, and power, unseen among the beasts of the field, do we become far more destructive than these creatures?
The speculation of Aquinas and Nicodemus provides an answer that, while it may confound the secular sensibility, offers a hope quite unmatched by any materialistic worldview. What God made is good, and our intellect, from which we are able to grasp the universal in the particular, is one of his many precious gifts.
As a result of the fall, though, our state became disordered. Unable to contemplate “immaterially, purely, and spiritually only the bare, simple inner principles of beings,” we are now reliant upon imagination. The imagination, “under the influence of the senses,” allows us to “visualize the outline, color, shape,” and “dimensions of things.”
As we can’t see God “through a spiritual light,” the imagination can be a great benefit, as it can lead us to know our creator and grow closer to him. But this course of development is far from typical for us. Because we are disordered, our imagination is distracted from higher and holier things.
The senses present us with glittering phenomena, and we are provoked to lust, greed, jealousy, and so forth. Drawn to sin, we prioritize the temporal over the eternal–the wicked, ugly, and false over the good, beautiful, and true; Satan over God, and Hell over Heaven.
Every “civilized” person, like Rousseau, might confess that their “passions have forever destroyed their original simplicity.” It is unsurprising, given this warped disposition, that the communities we form are dysfunctional. In the absence of grace, we could only despair.
The Word Became Flesh
The word, written or spoken, had a sacred significance for many ancient peoples. The holy books of the Abrahamic traditions attribute a divine origin to language. Among these faiths, Christianity alone asserts that the word was not only “in the beginning with God,” but that the word “was God.”
The Gospel of John personifies the word, proclaiming that “all things came into being through him.” The word that God spoke in Genesis, by whom creation was formed, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The unbridgeable gap between God and man, between temporal and eternal, between universal and particular, was collapsed with the incarnation. God entered into our broken condition, into a cosmos wounded by the effects of sin. This act of love is described beautifully in the Maronite Mass:
You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity
and our humanity with your divinity;
your life with our mortality
and our mortality with your life.
You have assumed what is ours,
and you have given us what is yours,
for the life and salvation of our souls.
To you, O Lord, be glory for ever.
The incarnation initiated a process that will culminate in a Heaven and Earth born anew. In this perfected state, to which we are all called, we will not be immaterial souls, but inhabit glorified bodies, rightly ordered and free from the stain of sin and the agony of death. We will behold God face to face, seeing him in his essence. And it will be a kingdom, whose regent will be none other than the incarnate word himself.
Revelation offers a vision of this final city, free from the avarice, cruelty, and oppression characteristic of our age:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Are we to accept injustice, then, with utter passivity, waiting for our Redeemer to make all things new? Such an attitude would be unhelpful. It is necessary to work toward a more just world as best we can, to look after our neighbors, to love them as we love ourselves.
This would, of course, manifest itself in advocacy for and implementation of policies that alleviate the suffering of the poor and marginalized, that further the goals of peace and reconciliation, and that foster an improvement in the quality of life for all. It is a work perpetually unfinished, and that it cannot be finished by us is essential to keep in mind.
But it will be finished, for its completion—our completion—is our purpose. It is a redemption for which “all creation waits with eager longing.”
The one who taught us to wait, who made it possible for us to conceive of a past and future, who made the world intelligible and gave us the capacity for abstract thought, is the same one who spoke the world into existence. By his word, from whom all reality issues, the cosmos will be reordered—ordered rightly—and humanity along with it.