12 May 2011

Aquinas on Absolute and Relative Foreigners

[W]e understand the Greek word for non-Greek to mean something foreign, and we can call human beings foreigners either absolutely or in relation to someone.  Those who lack reason, by which we define human beings, seem absolutely foreign to the human race, and so we call those who lack reason foreigners in an absolute sense.  They lack reason either because they happen to live in a climate so intemperate that it causes them to be dim-witted, or because there is an evil custom in certain lands whereby human beings are rendered irrational brutish, as it were.  And it clearly comes from the power of reason that reasonable laws govern human beings, and that human beings are practiced in the art of writing.  And so the fact that human beings do not establish laws, or establish unreasonable laws, and the fact that some peoples have no literary practices are signs that appropriately manifest barbarism.

But we call a human being a foreigner in relation to another when the one does not communicate with the other.  And nature especially constitutes human beings to communicate with one another by speech.  And so we can call those who do not understand one another's speech foreigners in relation to one another.  But Aristotle here is speaking about those who are foreigners absolutely.

(Commentary on Aristotle's Politics, tr. Regan)

This is an interesting interpretation of Aristotle's writings on the barbaros, and if correct it renders his position on the right of foreigners to be enslaved a great deal more plausible.  I cannot, however, make up my mind as to whether Aquinas is really just foisting his own views onto his master, since he provides little textual support for the concluding sentence.  Any thoughts?


  1. Hello! Pardon this off-topic comment, but I saw over at Valicella's blog where you were making a case for Spinoza being an actual theist of some sort as opposed to an atheist.

    Can you recommend any further reading on this? I ask because whenever I read about Spinoza, he's almost always summed up as an atheist, and no different from a reductive materialist who's a bit more flowery with his language. At the same time, what little I've read of Spinoza makes that description seem wrong somehow. So, I'm curious about just how theistic Spinoza really is.

  2. Hello, Anon! Never mind about the question topic: I welcome all the (intelligent) comments I can get ;-)

    I remember somewhere reading a book with a title like A Guide to Early Modern Philosophy wherein the author defends the position that Spinoza is a theist by noting that nearly all the traditional attributes of God are ascribed to Deus sive Natura by Spinoza; however, I can't off the top of my head remember the details of the book. Sorry.

    The best text for your purposes, though, is probably the Ethics itself: it's pretty hard to read through it without ideological prejudice and come away thinking of Spinoza as anything but a (strange sort of) theist. He clearly does not identify God with the world, takes God to be an omniscient "thinking thing," holds Him to be the cause of all things, eternal, immutable, infinite, the summum bonum, and possessed of the best kind of love for Himself and for men. (I can back all these up, if you like.)

    Does that help?

  3. Another relevant point: Spinoza often says things along the lines of "thus-and-such persons say so-and-so about God [where so-and-so is some traditional theological doctrine], but that can't be right because I've proven that God is not so-and-so," which suggests strongly that he saw himself as investigating the same God as that of traditional theology.

  4. Thanks - I guess I'll just have to read up on it myself if I want to know for sure. I think what really trips me up is that most people seem to insist that for Spinoza, God is not a person nor does He have a mind.

    Actually, could you back up what you attributed? Not that I doubt you, I'd just like to see what you're working off for the sake of some leads for myself. If you're correct, I'd love to be able to point in the future to quotes from Spinoza that go against the usual pictures of him.

  5. God is not the physical universe materialistically conceived: "The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous." (Letter XXI to Oldenburg)

    God a thinking thing: "Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing." (Ethics, Part II, Prop. 1)

    Spinoza also refers frequently to the Divine intellect throughout the Ethics, e.g.: "Hence it follows, that the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God." (Ethics, Part II, Prop. 11, Cor.) "We can have no sound reason for persuading ourselves to believe that God did not wish to create all the things which were in His intellect, and to create them in the same perfection as He had understood them." (Ethics, Part I, Prop. 33, Schol. 2)

    God is omniscient: "In God there necessarily exists the idea of His essence, and of all the things that necessarily follow from His essence." (Ethics, Part II, Prop. 3)

    God is the first cause: "It follows, thirdly, that God is the absolutely first cause." (Ethics, Part I, Prop. 16, Cor. III)

    God is immutable: "It follows, 2. That God is immutable, or (what is the same thing) all His attributes are immutable." (Ethics, Part I, Prop. 20, Cor. 2)

    God loves Himself: "God loves Himself with an infinite intellectual love." (Ethics, Part V, Prop. 35)

    God loves men: "Hence it follows that God, insofar as He loves Himself, loves men, and consequently that the love of God towards men and the intellectual love of the mind towards God are one and the same thing." (Ethics, Part V, Prop. 36, Cor.) On intellectual love, see Ethics, Part V, Prop. 33, Schol.

    On whether Spinoza's God is "personal": I confess I've never quite understood what this means, nor why it is so radical (as Brian Davies notes in The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, the first recorded defence of the claim that God is a person came from a Unitarian being tried for heresy). Anyway, I've also had a post in the works for a while replying to this charge, as well.

  6. Thank you. Those quotes certainly make it hard to understand why the "Spinoza is an atheist" line is so popular.