The Good as Sought through Will without Intellect—Subjectivity

In modern culture, the ineluctable complement of objective, scientific representation is a will operating without intellectual insight or any guiding vision of truth. Only its own self-posited ends and purposes can orient it and serve as values for it. The will is no longer oriented by rational desire for the Good as such, even though it may willfully seek concordance with a higher reality or Will. Duns does not give up on the desire for the Good and for God as fundamental to the orientation of human existence, but he removes them from the quest of the intellect for knowledge of truth and of the Cause of the universe. Instead, he assigns impulses to seek the good to the realm of ethics and to the practice of charity. Desire for the good belongs exclusively to the jurisdiction of the will and communicates with the divine only through commands supposedly known by revelation. Their connection with reason is thenceforth severed. Nature, too, like reason, is thereby released into its autonomy.

Human “good will” still reasons and finds grounds for its actions, but its goodness is generated self-reflexively from itself and from its own willing of the good. It is no longer essentially determined by reason, as in the Thomistic tradition. Will does not need to be informed and motivated externally by rational discernment of what is good in itself. The will itself now finds reasons and uses them, making them good rather than simply obeying their intrinsic nature as radiating the light of the real and true. The will’s goodness is no longer rooted in the cosmos. Will is itself the origin of the good rather than merely a faculty of choosing what is already in and of itself good on purely rational and natural grounds. The new age of the will that is good in itself and that leads eventually to the Kantian morality of the autonomous good will is born. With it is born the fact-value split that cleaves modernity into the dualism of free subjects, on the one hand, and an alienated world of mere matter, on the other.

In an attempt to forge an alternative, Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) developed a theology based on the natural desire for the supernatural.[1] This notion is the antithesis of Duns’s thinking that so marked the modern era. Duns makes reason sufficient and incontestable in its own nature and immanent sphere and thereby grants a license to human, apparently self-grounding, reflection to dominate the world by its own natural and rational powers.

Even though Dante, too, allows for an autonomous secular sphere, he nevertheless turns in constant tension toward a supernatural sphere that secular reason strives to emulate. Reason has no objective, scientific means of access to this other reality, but Dante nevertheless activates and intensifies his subjective and poetic efforts to approach and conform to it intellectually as an ideal. Dante understands, at least implicitly, through his imagination, that theology has to go beyond its fixed, dogmatic representations of the other world in order to preserve its ability to connect with the real spiritual order in a dynamic, existential relationship. This is the dimension that Kierkegaard calls “subjectivity” and brings to full expression in his radical contestation of the Enlightenment paradigm of autonomous, self-grounding science, with its secular rationality. That secular paradigm for Kierkegaard was most fully achieved in the Hegelian System.

Kierkegaard’s subjectivity witnesses existentially to a passion for the infinite and transcendent. Dante first discovers this radical subjectivity through his realization of the objective inaccessibility of any properly divine reality and truth. Up against this impasse, Dante forces open a secular realm for individual expression in relation to the inexpressible. Scotus, facing the same impasse, designs the system of autonomy for free conceptual invention within the sphere of our empirical and objective reality, cordoning off the higher metaphysical reality as a matter for ethics and charitable action. This becomes the founding charter for modern science and its mechanistic worldview, on one side, and for subject-centered, eventually liberal ethics, on the other, complemented by an optional fideistic theology. The other route foreshadowed, instead, by Dante opens the way to a poetic understanding of the cosmos by subjective means of expression such as symbol and metaphor and to humanities disciplines as modes of interpreting every aspect of reality as engaging personal existence.

  • [1] Henri de Lubac, Surnaturel. Etudes historiques (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1946). 2 John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
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