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Metaphysics for a secular, politicized culture

Wynand De Beer’s recent book Reality: From Metaphysics to Metapolitics is clearly relevant to a host of contemporary issues and has much to offer Catholics who find themselves living in a nominalist civilization.

(Image: Louis Maniquet/Unsplash.com)

South African writer Wynand De Beer’s analysis in Reality: From Metaphysics to Metapolitics of Western metaphysics from the Greeks to the Catholic and Orthodox continuation of this tradition has much to offer Catholics who find themselves living in a nominalist civilization that rejects the idea of eternal meaning or essences to individual things.

Today’s nominalists believe that there is great power just in naming something. They do not worry about the beingness of things. This mindset forms a major pillar of relativistic morality. Nominalism has become such an ingrained part of Western thought and culture that we often forget the deep and rich roots of traditional metaphysics, particularly the metaphysics of being, in Western culture, and how this greatly affected and aided Christianity.

De Beer’s in-depth analysis of the lively and varied debates of the Greeks takes into account the wider Indo-European roots that include Iran and India. While this may sound fanciful, his analysis of similarities among Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and German texts highlights the common patrimony.

De Beer centers his argument on the fact that reality is organized into various levels of being. Almost everything else in metaphysics seems to fall into line once this hierarchical structure of reality is established. This perspective enables a rich analysis of God, including whether God is being itself, the giver of beingness to others, or above being.

A hierarchical view gives meaning to the cosmos. The cosmos has a teleology, or end purpose, towards which it is moving. We have a place in this meaningful universe, which gives substance to our individual lives. The cosmos, ordered through the logos, is knowable. This makes science possible. The universe can be explained through mathematics and scientific law. De Beer spends much time on the metaphysical significance of mathematics for the Greeks. The Christian Middle Ages continued to highly value mathematics.

The close connection of the cosmos to the Creator and to humans explains its beauty, and why beauty itself plays an essential role in human well-being. De Beer shows how a metaphysical view of the universe is holistic. Pantheists also believe this, but for very different metaphysical reasons from Christians. De Beer uses ontology, or the philosophy of being, to explain this. Pantheism sees no “ontological gap” between God and creation. God and the universe are one. The traditional Christian metaphysical view strongly asserts that God’s being is of a different kind than the being of created things. God gave these created things their being in the first place. God is in the world, but not of it.

As with many other aspects of metaphysics, De Beer turns to Plato and the neoplatonists such as Plotinus to explain the ontology of God. This is fascinating and very helpful for contemporary Catholics, as the discussion helps us see the essential role of metaphysics in Christian theology.

The discussion in Reality: From Metaphysics to Metapolitics is clearly relevant to many contemporary issues such as human rights, social organization, government, the environment, and sexuality even if the author does not address these directly.

The relationship between becoming and being, for instance, has clear implications for the human treatment of nature. The current environmental debate sometimes develops the false dichotomy of environmental protection versus economic development. We either treat natural resources, animals, and plants as goods to be exploited for our benefit, or we can become Gaia worshipers in all but name. Metaphysics directs the debate in a far more balanced direction.

The hierarchical chain of being offers a spiritual way to relate to matter without proposing pantheism. The hierarchical view does not divide reality into the physical and the spiritual. The physical is already imbued with the spiritual. The spiritual is inherent in the physical since, as De Beer notes, “this physical world in which we live is already a combination of the levels of soul and matter. It is therefore, strictly speaking, wrong to say that we live in a material world, because the matter that we can perceive through our senses is formed matter, i.e., matter formed by soul.”  Medieval Christians believed this. So should modern ones.

De Beer shows the connection between transcendence and immanence in Plato’s thinking: “Through their participation in the transcendent reality, the immanent things obtain an ontological weight and durability … impossible without such participation.” Despite this participation in transcendence, humans are still humans, and the other things of nature remain themselves. This is what gives to Western metaphysics its great balance. It can simultaneously put every element or person into a hierarchy of being, into its rightful and just place, without destroying individual character. In fact, injustice is the very act of destroying this rightful balance because it destroys the individual character of things and the personhood of humans.

And this is precisely what nominalism is guilty of doing. Reality: From Metaphysics to Metapolitics provides readers with insight into why our modern world has become so unhinged and why everything seems to be going wrong at the same time. This reflects the holistic nature of reality. Since everything is so closely connected, an erroneous metaphysical outlook will turn everything poisonous.

Nominalism leads to a leveling of everything, which means disconnection, separation, and, for humans, depersonalization. A hierarchical and traditional metaphysics would create a society that is far more robust and culturally and religiously richer than a nominalist one.

De Beer’s discussion of God reveals how a robust and clear grasp of metaphysics could enrich theology and, in particular, apologetics. The author repeatedly cites the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, who characterizes theology as encompassing both contemplative knowledge and scientific or reason-based knowledge.

This leads to a discussion of apophatic versus cataphatic theology. The latter is familiar to Catholics. Cataphatic theology offers a doctrine-based understanding of God. Apophatic theology, known in the West as the via negativa, invites a more mystical orientation towards knowing God that does not depend on dogma (though it does not refute or claim to surpass dogma). According to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whom De Beer repeatedly relies on, apophatic theology “conceives of God as the infinite mystery that underlies existence.” Orthodox Christians believe that leaving behind rational and sense-based declarations about God can purify the believer.

The apophatic approach embraces the mystery of God. De Beer cites John Scotus Eriugena on apophatic theology: “everything that can be said about God can be contradicted, and even the contradiction can be contradicted.” Apophatic theology became much less important to the West after the first millennium. This is a loss for us today. This approach could connect with the “I’m spiritual, not religious” crowd who are often authentic seekers but turned off by doctrinaire approaches.

Underlying the entire argument of Reality is the assertion that we must approach things holistically. Conservatives tend to run around putting out individual fires in education, the family, society, or in local, state, and federal politics. Unsurprisingly, the constant culture wars have worn many people out.

The great advantage of the woke left is their own holistic approach. If they lose a battle in one place, they are heartened in knowing that they’ve won another battle somewhere else. The many battles that they wage all derive from the same revolutionary and nihilistic urge. We will be able to defend civilization much better if we too can adopt and put into operation a holistic vision. The one offered by De Beer is solid, as it was the norm of Western civilization for centuries.

Reality: From Metaphysics to Metapolitics
By Wynand De Beer
Wipf and Stock, 2019
Hardover/Paperback, 264 pages


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About Brian Welter 8 Articles
Brian Welter has studied education, history, and theology and writes on these subjects for many publications including Studia gilsoniana. He teaches English in Taiwan.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this interesting note. I am not well read on medieval philosophy but I have some introductions to scholasticism. Scholasticism could be said to be incomplete from 2 viewpoints: it was always an “open” inquiry and Aquinas has been given a precedence. It is not to fault Aquinas or the precedence: he formed a universal method and a teaching platform.

    I think scholasticism still has merits. A scholastic could have taken exception to this statement:

    ‘ The hierarchical chain of being offers a spiritual way to relate to matter without proposing pantheism. The hierarchical view does not divide reality into the physical and the spiritual. The physical is already imbued with the spiritual. The spiritual is inherent in the physical since, as De Beer notes, “this physical world in which we live is already a combination of the levels of soul and matter. It is therefore, strictly speaking, wrong to say that we live in a material world, because the matter that we can perceive through our senses is formed matter, i.e., matter formed by soul.” ‘

    So that the concluding statement is untrue for the scholastic and for historians! -:

    ‘ Medieval Christians believed this. So should modern ones. ‘

    For there are many grounds on disagreement not merely one:

    1. The external world has its own existence apart from “formed matter” and man’s perception
    2. Man’s perception capacity can distinguish among different categories of experience
    3. There is a clear distinctiveness between spiritual and physical notwithstanding spiritual in physical
    4. Original sin introduced major disruptions yet man can rationally distinguish external things
    5. God’s intervention is completely gratuitous and undetermined and from outside creation, i.e., both physical and spiritual; and is defining in ontology, before and after.

    If there is some virtue with “apophatic” surely it wouldn’t totally rule out “cataphatic”? Has this been addressed?

    In modern times the phrase “chain of being” would present too many ambiguities, both philosophically and in terms of doctrine. For the sake of brevity I would just, at this point, say, that my own counsel is, that I am very circumspect about such captions.

    Similarly, Jean Gebser, in the recent era, describes how consciousness evolves; but this too would have been questioned by a scholastic.

    The headline is “Metaphysics for secular and political culture”. So what is the author going to do? And how will he name and speak to other situations like conflict or over-abstracting?

  2. Rather than levels of being, I would suggest to De Beers a more accurately stated hierarchy of acts of being. Soul was understood by the Greeks as a principle of self motivation. If we equate the spiritual with matter, that is, material things we ironically enter into an indistinguishable nominalism. “The matter that we can perceive through our senses is formed matter, i.e., matter formed by soul” (De Beers). Form, a principle of being in Aristotelian Thomistic thought is an act, the act that forms what a thing is when acted upon the ‘principle’ matter. Berdyaev’s apophatic negation approach to understanding God is in John Scotus Eriugena a God who is incapable of understanding himself, since that would relegate his existence to thought. The Eucharistic presence consequently is only a type [a type because the perception of a God who is above being cannot be inclusive to being] or figure [Arius and later Nestorius of Constantinople]. It ‘situates’ God, situate a word that really can’t find relevance in the apophatic as a God above Being itself, as manifest in Berdyaev’s “Apophatic theology [that] conceives of God as the infinite mystery that underlies existence”. De Beer’s, also, must presume in this that God is above being itself [if above Being then he is not a Being]. Reducing metaphysics to levels of being doesn’t enrich our religious experience. [If] “Orthodox Christians believe that leaving behind rational and sense-based declarations about God can purify the believer”, specifically on condition of embracing De Beer’s deconstruction of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas I urge them to reassess their views. This form of spiritual thought that implies disparage for religious thought as treated by De Beers, is thought that is heresy, plain and simple.

  3. I think that when our Lady said to consecrate Russia she did not mean merge theologies or mind ways to adapt west to east.

    The consecration is one thing. Then there is work to be done reconciling things at odds with faith and reason; and affirming things that are proper to faith and reason.

    And it is not as though there is a line between east and west. Within Orthodoxy itself the truth remains at large and we have the clear sign from the BVM where to begin.

    What’s taking so long!

  4. Although I hadn’t heard of the term before, there is probably a reason why apophatic theology fell out of fashion. It may be a great method of attaining spiritual perfection through mysticism, but not thinking.

    An evangelization in modern culture will need to start at the reality of objective truth. That shouldn’t be that difficult because it forms the basis of the scientific method. The second step would be to make sure that those people who are “teaching” errors (i.e. transgenderism, CRT, etc.) are removed from their positions. Fourth, any erroneous books written must be banned and burned.

    Finally, prior censorship like the Index needs to be set up. Quality must take preference over quantity. With regards to non-theological works the sloppy or malicious scholar mustn’t be allowed to publicize.

  5. It seems to me (not having read the book) that the traditional metaphysics of De Beer is strikingly inline with the universal or essential metaphysic of the Traditionalist school, of whom Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon are the founders. It is also in like with theosophical Kabbalah which, in turn, expresses the same quintessential metaphysics of meticulously set forth by the Traditionalist School. James Cutsinger and Rama Coomaraswarmy offer studies of Christianity from within the above perspectives, and I would point out the affinities between Jewish Kabbalah and Christianity have been strongly suggested since the Italian Renaissance (Pico della Mirandola and others). It is my own understanding that the viewpoint of the Traditionalists protects at once the validity of each of the world’s religions as of the one Divine Source, while protecting their differences of form, by which they are each ‘relatively absolute’.

  6. In traditional metaphysics, God as Beyond-Being is not exclusive to Being, but rather contains within Itself all the possibilities of manifestation (in a given ‘world’, or set of conditions), and all those which cannot thus manifest. God as Being, the Creator God, is an emanation of the Absolute, of the Will to create, and the Principle of Being that is inherent in the possibility of manifestation itself. The Creator God is thus the First Person of the Trinity, produced by the self-polarization of the One into ‘essence’ and ‘substance’. See, for example, Rene Guenon “The Multiple States of the Being.”

  7. Just how significant can it be to characterize a civilization as nominalist?
    Nominalism is a view that all abstractions, concepts, or universals exist only as names created by the mind and expressed in words. This silly idea implies that nominalism itself is a word with no referent. Clearly invoking nominalism as a true understanding of reality means that there is no reality. Starting with nothing as a premise leads nowhere. In other words, it would be wrong to characterize a civilization as nominalist. One can legitimately argue that a civilization is composed of people with influence who believe that nominalism is a valid description of intellectual endeavors but it cannot be nominalist ideas that they use to take action in society. They will always invoke the old boring ideas of their superiority and power in some respect or another.

  8. Wynand De Beers’ holistic philosophy is attractive as an appeal to unity and the spiritual. It certainly is a first things first approach identifying what we all have in common, the inherent grasp of universal truths common to natural law. As noted in Elizabeth Arendt’s comment it is “strikingly” close to the Traditionalist [or Perennial, meaning basic truths always held by man] school of a form of religious philosophy, unitarian in nature, owed to 20th century Swiss German Frithjof Schuon. Elizabeth mentions René Guénon approx same period, a former Catholic who didn’t perceive Catholicism as the conduit of unifying truth [Jacques Maritain first an aficionado later in opposition sought his placement on the Index]. Perhaps it’s perceived as unfair to mention the two, however they formed the school of thought that Elizabeth in my view correctly says strikingly resembles De Beers’ thought. My strongest objection to Brian Welter’s lavish endorsement of De Beers is the idea of a God who transcends being, not simply existence in general rather in scholastic terms Being as Being. That somehow there is existence that transcends being, the word being a very human logical understanding of reality. Apparently for De Beers and Welter not sufficiently mysterious. For example, the idea expressed here that the Absolute is the God that transcends being and the Creator God, an allusion to the divine Word “emanates” from the Absolute presumably into the dimension of existence. That makes the word an extension of the Absolute. Aside from contradiction that denies the distinct Person of Christ in the Trinity of Persons. The Creator Word is eternally begotten by the Father, the wording of the Fathers of the Church to prevent that notion of emanating from. The distinction of the three Persons is actually the realization of the Trinity and the reality of the Man God Savior Jesus of Nazareth. Our appeal to the world as Catholics of knowledge of the transcendent being of God is precisely in the Person of Jesus the Christ.

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