The Divine Lamp

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Rosmini: A Sketch of His Philosophical Critique and His System

Posted by Dim Bulb on April 27, 2008

  • The following is an introduction written by Father William Lockhart to a short work written by Blessed Antonio Rosmini Serbati, wherein Serbati sketched a critique of the philosophies of Locke, Berkeley, and Fichte, and also presented a sketch of his own philosophy. In this introduction Father Lockhart gives a succinct description of the major point of Rosmini’s system.

It often happens that I am asked to say in a few words what it the characteristic principle of the system of philosophy named after Rosmini, the venerated Founder of the Order to which I have the honor to belong.

The following Short Sketch of Modern Philosophies, written by Rosmini forty years ago, but only recently published in the Italian original, seems well suited to the above purpose. I commend it to all who wish to know what Rosmini’s system is, but who have not time or inclination for studying it in his larger works; or who perhaps have only heard Rosmini spoken of as one against whom much opposition has been raised by many Catholic writers, especially by Italian members of the Jesuit Order.

On this point it may be well to say a few words. Many accusations having been laid before the Holy See against Rosmini as a theologian and philosopher, Pope Pius IX, appointed, in 1850, a special Congregation to examine and report on his works. A most searching examination was instituted of more that three years duration, made by twenty-four Consultors of the Index, all bound under oath to study thoroughly all the inculpated works, independently, without consultation with others, and in relation to the charges, more than three hundred in number, that had been brought against them. In the month of June, 1854, Pius IX presiding over the assembly of the Cardinals and Consultors of the Index, and having heard the all but unanimous verdict of acquittal, pronounced the following Decree: “All the works of Antonio Rosmini Serbati, concerning which investigation has recently been made, must be dismissed; nor has this investigation resulted in anything whatever derogatory to the good name of the author, or to the praiseworthiness of life and singular merits before the Church of the Religious Society founded by him.” To this Decree was added at the same time the following Precept of Silence: “That no new accusations and discords should arise and be disseminated in the future, silence is now for the third time enjoined on both parties by command of his Holiness.”

Being myself in Rome in the early part of the year 1854, a little before the sentence of acquittal on Rosmini’s works, I one day received a visit from the English Assistant of the General of the Jesuits, who informed me in the course of conversation that he had been sent expressly by the General to assure me, and through me the Superiors of our Institute, that the General wished it to e understood that “the opposition to our venerated Founder was not the work of the Society of Jesus, but a School in the Society.”

I have always treasured these words, because they assure me that the opposition on the part of those writers, which is as active as ever, notwithstanding the Precept of Silence, is not to be understood as committing a venerable Order, for which I feel so high an esteem; between which and ourselves I feel sure there one day e a perfect harmony of views on the subject of philosophy, since we are agreed in taking St Thomas as our master. We may differ with those writers in some of their interpretations of St Thomas’ meaning, but we both recognize in the Holy See an infallible umpire if ever it should declare any philosophical opinions to clash with any principle of Catholic Doctrine.

a few remarks on the fundamental principle of Rosmini’s philosophy may not e out of place. This concerns thee origin of ideas in the human mind.

Now the preliminary difficulty in understanding the Rosminian philosophy is that it goes deeper than what are popularly assumed to be the first principles of human thought. It undertakes to account for ideas. But to many people it has never occurred that there is any difficulty in this matter requiring explanation. They have been used to assume with Locke and others, more or less of the same school, that the formation of ideas is so simple that it does not require to e accounted for. It is assumed to e a simple fact like sensation. They say “We have sensations, and we have ideas; the sensations come first, and they are transformed into ideas y the faculty of reflection.”

Those who talk thus are not aware that between sensations and ideas they have jumped a gulch which is not less than infinite!

This mental condition reminds me of a conversation I once overheard in a railway carriage between two countrymen. “John,” said to one, “how about this railway telegraph; how do they send messages by it?” “Oh,” said the other, “it is very simple. You see them wires along the line. They run from London to York. They are fastened to a thing at each end with a dial plate and hands to it like a clock, with letters all round, and when they turn the hands in London this’,n and that’n, the hands in York goes that’n and this’n.” “Ah,” said the other, “it seems very simple when you have it explained.”

Much like this is the state of mind of those who do not see any difficulty in the formation of ideas, and serenely talk, as Locke and his school do, of “sensations eing transformed into ideas by means of the faculty of reflection.” They ignore the crucial point in philosophy, much like the countryman who explained the electric telegraph, omitting all mention of electricity-that occult and mysterious force which is behind the phenomena. (See note 1)
The fundamental principle of Rosmini’s philosophy concerns, as I have said, the origin of ideas-how the ideas or thoughts of things arise in our mind. For, it is certain that whenever that modification of our sensitivity which we term our sensation takes place, we immediately and necessarily think, not of the sensation within us, but of a something outside of us to which we attribute existence, call it a thing, and credit it with being the cause of our sensations; so that we actually attribute to it the qualities of heat or cold, blackness, whiteness, or the like, which, when we reflect or think again, we know exists within our own sensitivity only.

This mental process is obviously a judgment, in which we predicate the existence of a cause of our sensation. To say nothing at present of the idea of cause; it is clear that we could not apply the predicate of existence unless we knew what existence is, that is to say, unless we had the idea of existence already in our mind. We have thus two modes of knowledge to e carefully distinguished from each other-knowledge by judgment, whereby we affirm the reality of individual things-knowledge by intuition, whereby we intellectually think pure ideas. With this fundamental distinction in view I now Proceed to trace the origin and show the relative position of these two modes of thought. A little reflection will make it clear that the idea goes before the judgment, and is necessary for it formation.

We are said to know a thing when we apply to it the idea of existence or judge that it is an existing thing.

That which is no thing is unthinkable, for the object of thought-the idea of existence-is gone. And this shows that the idea of existence is the necessary object of thought, as St Thomas says, “Objectum intellectus est vel verum commune” . It is the first idea, without which we can form no judgment and know nothing. It is plain, therefore, that the idea of existence must be self-known (per se nota), otherwise we should be incapable of knowing it or of knowing anything. And this is the same as to say that it must be the first idea and the one innate idea in the human mind. (see note 2)
But how does this idea of existence make its appearance in the mind?

Not as a product of the senses, for we are obliged to apply this idea on occasion of each sensation, in order to form that idea of the thing which necessarily arises in our mind on occasion of each sensation. In the following brief treatise Rosmini shows very clearly from the very nature of the idea of existence, which is the formal part of all our ideas, why this idea can not come from the senses. He shows that the sensations are limited to the particular impression made on our sensorium, whereas ideas are unlimited, and can be applied ad infinitum to any number of beings, and to any number of the same genus or species. (see note 3). Now the idea of a thing is the same as the logical possibility of the thing. That which is possible was always possible, and is therefore eternal, and that which is eternal is divine, therefore Rosmini teaches that ideas are in a certain sense divine, i.e., because they have divine characteristics.

The idea, therefore, is so totally distinct from the sensations, so immensely elevated above them, that it is absurd to suppose it to be the product of sensations, because no effect can rise higher than its source; although it is, at the same time, an obvious fact that the ideas are made known to us on occasion of the sensations. In a word the sensations furnish the material element, the innate idea of existence, the formal element, of all the ideas we form by aid of the senses.

If then the idea of existence is not a product of sensation, yet if on occasion of the sensations we always find in our mind, it is clear that we find there what has there before, which was never formed but which was given from without, by means of another faculty, that of intelligence, which, as Rosmini teaches, is endowed with the intuition of the idea of existence by God, in whose Mind the idea of existence, and of all existences was from all eternity. This is expressed by St Thomas when he says: “Deus cognoscendo se cognoscit naturam universalis entis” SCG, I. 50).

And, indeed, this is self-evident if we believe in God as the infinitely intelligent Creator, willing and therefore knowing every particle of creation from all eternity.

These ideas of possible being in the mind of God are the types according to which He created all things, by an act of His free will, selecting out of all possible things such as He saw it was for the best to create. Thus an architect forms in his own mind the design which he intends to draw or to build, selecting also for good reasons, not always the thing most perfect in itself, but that which is best, all the circumstances being considered.

In like manner, regarding the communication of ideas; (to carry out the same analogy), the architect may if he pleases keep his idea to himself, or if he pleases he may communicate it or any portion of it to another mind, and then it becomes the thought or idea of that other; yet it would still be the original idea in essence, and the idea of the originator would always stand objectively to the recipient, as something distinct from his own subjectivity.

Analogously to this we say that the idea of existence, and the ideas of existences, which we find in our mind, and which were elicited on occasion of the sensations, are the same that were originally in the mind of God, Who, seeing all creation, saw even the modes in which the forces of the universe would make themselves perceived by us, and be classed as things, objects, or beings (see note 4). These ideas, Rosmini teaches, could come into our minds only by communication from God, through the intellectual faculty, or intuition of the idea of existence, which combines with the sensations that are perceived by us, in the unity of the identical human subject, which is at once sensitive and intelligent. Thus it is the identical Ego or self which feels and knows, and the result is the intellectual perception of objects, or the formation of ideas and the application of them (see note 5).

St Thomas says: “Esse in quantum est esse non potest esse diversum” (SCG I, 52). The idea, therefore, of existence or of possible being in the mind of God is the same essence of being as the idea of existence in the mind of man. It must, therefore, be a communication to man of some thing that considered in itself is Divine, since the ideas in God are His Divine substance. In God they are God. But if so, it is objected “to suppose man to be by nature in communication with the Divine substance is the error of the Ontologists and tends logically to Pantheism.” Rosmini replies, in his answer to Gioberti, “that the human mind has only the intuition of a light which descends from God and which is, therefore, an appurtenance of God. Now every appurtenance of God is God, if we consider it as it is in God, but if we consider it abstracting from all the rest that makes the reality of God, it is an appurtenance of God, as the Divine Goodness and the Divine Wisdom are appurtenances of God but not God himself, for God is not Wisdom or Goodness only. Thus although in God there are no real distinctions except those of the three Divine Persons, God is able to distinguish mentally His ideas from His Divine substance; and a man likewise can abstract his ideas from himself and may impart his ideas or a part of his idea to his fellow man without imparting his own substance, so God may abstract His ideas from Himself, and may communicate His ideas or some part of them, such as the idea of existence or being, without communicating to man His Own Divine substance. He may manifest His idea without manifesting His Reality or subsistence, and to the objection of Gioberti (that “this idea must be God, because everything is either God or a creature, but the idea of being is not a creature seeing it has Divine characters, therefore it must be God”), Rosmini replies, “Every real being must be God or creature, but not so every ideal being. The idea of being abstracted from God’s reality is neither God nor creature, it is something sui generis, an appurtenance of God.”

The idea of existence is the light of the mind, according to the analogy with the material light, so that the light of reason is the name given universally to the informing constitutive principle of the intellectual faculty. For as it is y the material light that our eye is enlightened so as to receive the impressions of form and color which aid us to distinguish one thing from another (and without this light the whole universe would remain for us perfectly dark); so the idea of existence is the light of our mind, by which we actually distinguish objects and know existences, on occasion of our eye being enlightened by the material light, or on receiving other sensitive impressions.

The light of reason is, according to Rosmini, what Philosophy, following the lines traced out by Aristotle, defines as the Lumen intellectus agentis, and of which St Thomas says that it is participatio Luminis in nobis impress, seu participatio Lucis aeternae.

St John tells us, Deus erat Verbum…erat Lux vera quae illuminat omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum-“The Word of God is the light that enlightens every man coming into the world.”

It is this “idea of existence” or “light of being” given to man which constitutes the objectivity of truth, as seen by the human mind. For truth is that which is, as falsehood is that which is not. It is this which makes man intelligent and gives him a moral law y which he sees the beingness or essence of things, and recognizes the duty of his own being, to act towards each being whether finite or infinite, creature or God, according to the beingness or essence of being which he eholds in the light of the truth of being.

Thus, according to Rosmini, is secured the objectiveness of truth; and the high rule of morality and religion is summed up in the grand sentence of Rosmini which he shows to be the divine imperative in the conscience of man, “Riconoscere l’ente secondo la sua entita”- “Recognize being according to the beingness that is in it.” He shows, too, that this same principle of natural reason, when sublimated by Divine Grace, becomes the great principle of faith and charity, dictating to us the duty, and giving the power of loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, inspiring the soul of man to perform deeds of supernatural self-sacrifice, arising from the intimate sense of the presence of God in the soul, and the conviction of the nothingness of all things, except as they give glory to God, by being used according to the infinitely perfect will of God, in which He designed the universe, and which he causes man to know by the natural and supernatural light, and by the external manifestations of His Providence.

1. Every sensation is particular; reflection simply reproduces the particular, imagination pictures it; but ideas are universal, and all involve the idea of existence which is the most universal of all. how do we get the universal?
2. It does not account for the origin of the idea of existence in our minds to say we have in us a faculty endowed with the virtue of acquiring the idea of existence on occasion of the sensations. The question is, what is the nature of this faculty? For, in order that this faculty may be able to operate must it not be itself in act? Surely that which is not in act, does not exist, and therefore can not operate. For a faculty is nothing but a “first act (actus primus) whence “second acts” (actus secundi), or what we commonly call “acts,” may proceed. Now the first act of the intellectual faculty-the act by which this faculty exists-must in the very nature of things, e an intellectual act; else the faculty would not be intellectual; and if the act is intellectual it must consist in the vision or intuition of an object; because this is what is meant by an intellectual act. The very etymology of intellectus (derived from intus legere, to read within) shows this clearly. The act of reading necessarily implies the act of seeing; and there can be no seeing without something which is seen; in other words, without the intelligent subject, and the object which this subject looks at and thus understands. The thing seen-the object present a initio to the intelligent subject-the constitutive form of the human understanding (vis intellectiva), is existence, being, and this is the light of reason.

3. Rosmini makes the faculty and art of language, as taught to man by the tradition of human society, a chief factor in the formation of abstract ideas, for words are sensible signs of ideas, and stand as sensible representations of ideal things, enabling us to form classes of things in our mind-genera and species, which are all abstract ideas.

4. Qui cognoscit perfecte naturam universalem, omnes modos cognoscit in quibus illa natura potest haberi (SCG I, 50).

5. Rosmini teaches that there is a spiritual as well as a corporeal sense, and that the soul feels itself as it knows itself.

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