Proclus, Vico and the Myth of Self-Interest

| John William Waterhouse - Echo and Narcissus, 1903. |

It is a staple of liberal moral psychology, stemming from the ahistorical anthropological assumption of the individual preceding social formation, that man’s nature is an inherently self-interested one. Typically, the liberal arguments for the creation of social orders first presuppose some version of self-interest as an explanatory efficient cause. The various flavours of liberalism may qualify self-interest differently yet the core claim of the moral agent being principally motivated by that which is of most use to him holds true through most formulations.

Giambattista Vico’s argument against such a view of self-interested man begins from the quintessentially Aristotelian claim that the social order precedes man. Man, as seen from the liberal view, may ceaselessly act for what he takes to be personal particular ends, but said ends are ultimately are contingent upon the various institutional roles he occupies. When he is a father he identifies his interests with those of his kin; when he is a citizen he identifies them with those of his city; and when a national, with those of his nation.1 In each stage of social complexity, something new is disclosed about a given moral agent which makes what his interests are, intelligible. A man’s intentions fundamentally rest upon the social institutions which give his life meaning. Strip him of these and you lose the agent whose good you are inquiring into. So naturally, the verdict to be concluded upon regarding self-interest-itself is that it is a meaningless concept because there is no man, and has never been any man, that existed and developed outside of social orders or authorities of any kind.

If one is to identify pleasure with self-interest then, one must ask what kind of socialisation such a man has had to conclude that such a good is his primary good. Indeed if it is this masturbatory self-pleasure, this is the closest we get to pure self-interest, but such disposition in man can only come about after he is made to define himself against his social institutions, or is otherwise lead into such a life that deracinates him of his connection to the shared good of which his institutions allow him participation in. Historically, this process of individualisation is a product of political centralisation2, so we must also conclude that pleasure as self-interest is also artificial. One may indeed argue that in all such circumstances man desires principally his own welfare, but what it is that constitutes his own welfare is disciplined by his social order.

The fundamental question self-interest seeks to answer after all is, “why this good and not another?” Even if we were to posit man as this inherently hedonistic, desiring machine, he must still make that evaluative judgement between the various goods he may choose to enjoy. If he is intimately connected to his social institutions, he will use the role he plays in them as a chief factor in making such an evaluation. If he is disconnected, atomised, he will look elsewhere to other authorities, often nowadays without even identifying such agents as authorities, that will discipline him into desiring other goods. Such is the fate of the wage-slave who finds no fulfilment because he exhausts himself in a role that hardly serves as a true vocation. Naturally, he turns into a hollowed consumer. Yet even his existence as a consumer, as we see with consumers generally, ends up constructing new identities and loyalties which unifies him, and others like him, to corporate authorities. 

Let us now consider the nature of the Good from Proclus. He argues that it belongs as a primary quality of God, the primal Good, to conserve all that exists. Likewise, if that which conserves – holds together the being of a multiplicity of things – is unity, then goodness, wherever present, makes the participant one, and holds its being together in virtue of this unification. Every good tends to unify what participates in it, and all unification is good in some manner.3

This gives us a very interesting manner in which to continue talking of social institutions and the human identification of goods. As we see from Vico above, it is this unification of the moral agent with the institution he is defined by that inebriates him with identification of goods which he sees as in his interest, but this can go much further than the individual. This ontological subordination of agent-to-institution is inherently good, as abused as it might otherwise be under advanced capitalist modernity and democracy, because it subsumes the individual good within the shared good. 

Yet the logic of political and economic liberalism is always to lead away from unity and appeal to this mythic individualised self-interest, even if its success is predicated upon a more fundamental unity of which it exists in spite of. After all, it is the competitive logic of the market and of the electoral struggle – the institutional conflict between entities – not the cooperative logic of the unified social order that seeks internal goods which underlies both capitalism and democracy. 

Unity allows for the development of grand projects; whether they be intellectual, artistic or political, they all depend on this homonoia to function. Insofar as it is unified, it is thus good, because it allows for such projects to flourish in an unfrustrated manner towards the interior goods of their respective practices. 

Thus we can conclude in a Proclean fashion, as Vico himself does, that there is an inherently divine quality to the unity that allows for the flourishing of such shared projects. Vico identifies this divine quality with Providence itself. Unable to attain all the goods he wishes, man is constrained to pursue that which he is due, which is just. Any new set of institutional arrangements must always involve some manner of underlying agreement about the practices they make possible and the determinate content of this depends upon the inherited institutions of the historic social order. This regulating force of human justice, as Vico magnanimously declares; is divine justice which is administered by Providence to preserve social orders.4 That is how intrinsic authority is to human nature, which is to say, it is more fundamental than human nature itself. It is not for no reason that authors of the Gospels write that everyone is to be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Rom. 13) and that the faithful are implored to give all men their due, to; 

1 Peter 2:17 | Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.4


[1] Pompa, Leon., Vico – A Study of the ‘New Science’. Syndics of Cambridge University Press, London. 1975, 21-27.

[2] For a detailed exploration of the relationship between political centralisation and individualism, see C.A. Bond – Nemesis and Larry Siedentop – Inventing the Individual.

[3] Proclus and Dodds, E., The Elements Of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, Prop. 13, 15.

[4] Vico, G. and Bergin, The New Science Of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948, 341, 90.

[5] I always either quote from the Knox Translation Bible or Douay-Rheims. Sometimes a mix but the above is purely Douay-Rheims.

Notes on Platonism Vol.1

§ I


All the different political formations that Plato identifies, are all identified as ruled by elites. It is only the case that democracy is the exception because it is merely an ephemeral interregnum prior to tyranny.  In this manner, there are really only three stable types of rule – rule by military, rule by merchant, rule by despot. Each implicitly performs the priestly/clerical function of enforcing  and upholding some shared good/moral life.  Thus, to make a MacIntyrean conclusion, modes of political organisation only fundamentally differ in regards to the inherited traditions of thought that the rulers operate within. Said traditions of thought are what predispose the human character of given rulers to making certain assumptions about moral psychology/human nature etc., which colour how they confront political problems. Rule by “despot” becomes the clearest in light of (bio)leninism – a ruler who secures loyalty not through martiality or money, but through raising the periphery’s status to secure their loyalty – levelling the social order. This is despotism. “Democracy” is the most ethically repugnant form of political organisation. 


§ II


The Platonic tradition is right to argue that writing is fundamentally precluded from capturing certain features of the subject of discourse. For Plato, writing externalises memory with the undesirable result that consciousness appears to fail to include its own contents. For Plotinus, writing temporalises the space of consciousness and translates the simultaneously present contents of consciousness as an extension within time. Either way, writing naturally lends itself to the profane and to reification and in so doing has this fundamentally phenomenal relation to the various objects-themselves that writing is supposed to represent. Writing can never truly produce a structure that thoroughly captures its object. 

For the Platonic tradition; intellect is its objects, and truth is revealed through a self-disclosing intellectual activity, i.e. recollection. Yet, truth is itself a veil for an origin that falls outside of all representation. Such an understanding of truth then means that truth cannot adequately linguistically be communicated to another because any representation would rupture the unity of subject and object.




Creation, says Plotinus in a thoroughly poetic manner, is awake and alive at every point. Each thing has its own peculiar life though we, as our senses cannot discern the life within wood and stone, deny that life; 

Their living is in secret, but they live.1

By this conception, from the Timaeus’s world-soul, Neoplatonism bridges the gap between appearance and reality, solving the paradox of multitude in unity. 

We do not declare the Soul to be one in the sense of entirely excluding multiplicity. This absolute oneness belongs only to the higher nature, we make it both one and manifold; it has part in the nature which is divided among bodies, but it has part also in the indivisible, and so again we find it to be one.2


§ IV


Plotinus writes that the reason souls turn from the divine is due to the evils of resulting from a dominance of self-will over the naturally endowed, higher intellective capacities of man that make man, man. As per the Aristotelian definition, to be human is to be an animal possessing logos. Naturally then, his highest possible activity is a contemplation of sorts, and his highest end must be something that fully satisfies his intellect. The evil results from denying this, and in denying this, instead of intellect, will is dominant. If will dominates over intellect, man in his justifications of self-ownership and freedom of will from higher reality/universals, the identification of his natural end drifts and differs. In more extreme cases it is totally abolished from his view – this is the natural consequence of voluntarism. 

He cannot be fulfilled lest he by chance wills himself to his right end, but this possibility seems contradictory, as this would mean willing himself back into being governed by logos. Plotinus and Aquinas converge in identifying man’s natural end in the primal principle of generation; God – whose vision of, and thus union with, alone can be the full satisfaction of his nature, for contemplating the divine is man’s highest activity given his essence as logos-driven, and so to have union with and direct knowledge of the highest truth is his natural telos. 

Now, merely it being in his nature does not make it by necessity how he will act, but by necessity how he may be truly fulfilled – that is, happy – or in the much more robust Greek – Eudaimonia (from Eudaemon meaning “good spirit(ed)”). In such a unified state, Plotinus writes of it as;

…rest unbroken: for how can that seek change, which all is well; what need that reach to, which holds all within itself; what increase can that desire, which stands utterly achieved?3

In union with the Divine Mind, man’s intellection is fully satisfied. In union with the perfect, man achieves perfection. Now this divinity is in someway already in him, as per Aristotle’s maxim that causes subsist in some manner in their effects, yet his essence isn’t the divine essence – that is external to him. By it being external to him, he does not possess it in perfect fullness, and in so identifying said externality he identifies it as his superior and so humbles himself in making said external identification. 


§ V


Socrates saw that the use of ethical predicates must only be governed by given evaluative criteria whereas Plato supposed that if this is to be so, that if there are to be objective standards for the use of such predicates. Moreover, that for Plato, it must be the case that such predicates are used to refer to objects, and objects belonging not to the multifarious changing world of sense but to another unchanging world. Said realm is apprehended by the intellect precisely through its dialectical ascent, whereby it grasps the meaning of abstract nouns and other general terms. 

Their objects are the Forms through the imitation of which or participation in which the objects of sense-perception have the characters that they have. The highest of these objects being the Good, the Republic presenting progress in rational argument, culminating in a vision of the Form of the Good. However the Good, is not one among the other forms we contemplate: they belong to the realm of unchanging existence – the Good dwells beyond. As is later developed through the course of philosophical history, through the later Platonists and Medievals, this is God. 

What the forms and the Good and their treatment by Plato here mean is that a theory of meaning has been thrust upon the scene of western philosophy. As MacIntyre writes, 

the logician has entered moral philosophy. Moral philosophy, forever, will necessarily incorporate the logical analysis of moral concepts, the theory of human purposes, motives, of social formation.4

We can see all three interests that underlie these pursuits, the epistemological, the psychological and the political meeting in the central parts of the Republic. We could even say that the best parts of the Republic display a kind of tripartite harmony. Such is the beauty of Plato’s work. 


§ VI


The One is all things and no one of them; the source of all things is not all things; yet it is all things transcendentally – all things having run back to it: or more correctly, not all as yet are within it, they will be.5 

Plotinus, as does Aristotle, privileges, of the four causes material/formal/efficient/final, the final cause. All things are One in that they are all teleologically constituted by the One – they all have their final end in him. Yet the One is none of them, because prior to any of the objects of creation having fully united themselves with the ineffable One, they are distinct from him. The One is totally subsistent, not dependent on anything, seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing – totally perfect and generates the cosmos by an exuberant overflowing of itself. 

The Plotinian cosmology is generated through hypostatic emanations – each emanation never completely severed from its prior. Consequently, this cosmology is a Chain-of-Being in a very strict sense whereby each prior is necessarily dependent on that which is above itself. Nature dependent on the World Soul, dependent on the Nous, dependent on The One. When something is ensouled, that is to say – has life, it is not seen as ensouled in the spatial sense. To illustrate – when you have a plant which you prune, the parts of the plant you have lopped off for the most part are now dead. Yet the plant itself is very much alive. 

This phenomenon misled many of the Presocratics to identify soul as a spatially extended substance that permeates through the plant. Lop off one part and you’ve amputated the plant – the disconnected part is dead because you dispersed it’s soul atoms or something or rather. Plotinus rejects this absurdity. Nothing here must be understood spatially because Soul never was in space. Rather, the World Soul imbues nature with the life-principle and you have merely severed the connection with this part of the plant to it. This raises the issue of our previous elaboration on emanations however, because each emanation can never be completely severed from its prior. The Neoplatonic explanation then would be that the dead plant part is in some sense it is now further down this Chain of Being, further from the Soul than it was prior. 

But, looking more minutely into the matter, when shoots or topmost boughs are lopped from some growing thing, where goes the soul that was present in them? Simply, where it came: soul never know spatial separation and therefore it was always within the source.6

Soul exists independent and transcendent to the plant. At the furthest reaches of these emanations, you get pure matter, which is really just noise which cannot exist independent of some sort of form. 




Plotinus writes that for there to be any subsequent creation, it must be grounded in a non-composite, absolutely single unity that is the foundation and first principle of generation. This is the One and it is a necessary being that transcends Being, insofar as Being is of composition and the One is beyond such composition. Standing before all things, he writes, there must exist a Simplex, differing from all its sequel, self-gathered not interblended with the forms that rise from it, and yet able in some mode of its own to present to those others.  If there were nothing outside all alliance and compromise, nothing authentically one, there would be no Source. No source, no creation. Nothing from nothing. Yet that would be contrary to all immediate experience and contrary to the very fact of a given agent capable of said experience since both of these things are composites that exist in some manner. Deduced from this starting point of the thinking agent and his composite experience we arrive at a transcendent, non-composite cause of our very relation between thinking agent and composite objects of experience. As the Scholastic maxim goes – there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses. Even to posit Plato’s anamnesis, recollection would have to be awoken somehow, and this would primarily happen as a result of sensory experience. God is perfect – no privations, the beginning of all powers and perfections which all other powers and perfections are a partial imitation of.




Lord my God, grant, I beseech you, 

That I may be made beautiful within, 

And that everything outside me may become dear within me.

May I consider only the wise man to be rich.

Bestow as much of this gold, 

Refined by fire, 

As none but the temperate man may bear or take away.


§ IX


The first part, of the above prayer, is an allegory to the somewhat disputed Second Alcibiades which concerns the nature of prayer. Prayer in Marsilio Ficino’s formulation is;

…the ardent disposition of the pure soul, a disposition devoted to God and desirous of what is seen to be good.7

Naturally, it is the object of the intellect that the Platonic/Aristotelian and Christian tradition hold to be the most fitting object of desire for man. The highest of all things one can contemplate being God himself. On the “gold, refined by fire”; 

Revelation 3:18 | I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.

Socrates seeks the good. Which good? Marsilio Ficino writes that it is; 

Wisdom, that is, consciousness of divine truth, which God alone can grant, which the beautiful soul alone is strong enough to receive, the soul that is temperate, pure, and bright.8

What should we ask for first? Ficino tells us that it is wisdom that may make us worthy. It is certainly the action of an intemperate, perhaps even irrational man to ask for any gift of which he cannot be due. So, we might also ask then; who is exactly worthy of divine wisdom? Who is ready to bear its light? The man who the cardinal virtues, that is, through the civil and purifying virtue of the purified soul, has cleansed his soul so that he has become beautiful, that is, totally pure and clear, and has chosen virtue, divine wisdom alone, the treasury of all riches, as his model.

For this reason we beseech God, the Father of all, and His servants to breathe favourably upon us, that may be cleansed by their kind and gracious favour. Socrates directly asks for this shining gold of divine wisdom in this dialogue. He does not ask proudly, nor yet mildly. Indeed, intemperate men are granted very little consciousness of truth but God embraces within Himself the whole of this limitless consciousness.9

Therefore he has asked for as much of this gold as only a temperate man is able to carry. This is indeed the burning gold which John, in Revelation, advises us to buy.


§ X


Meister Eckhart writes that by the eternal generation of the Logos through the Father’s self-quest, the Father becomes conscious of himself, and the love reflected back to the Father by the Son is the Holy Spirit10. Marsilio Ficino writes that there is nothing in the world more like the divine trinity than the Sun11. In the singular substance of the Sun a three-fold nature of sorts exists that distinct in relation yet exists in a subsistent unity. The first of said natures is a natural fecundity from the senses, the second being its manifest light flowing out of this fecundity, ever equal to it, and thirdly its power to heat which is a virtue equal to both. The fecundity represents The Father as the first principle from which all derive their existence; light, likened to intelligence, represents The Son conceived of intelligence; and heat stands for the loving Holy Spirit.

The reception of Christ by a ‘virgin’, Eckhart holds to analogously signify the fact that for God’s knowledge to manifest, the intellect (Christ as Logos, hence the analogy of intellect) must be ‘void’. As long as the active intellect is dominant and occupied with abstraction, thought, imagination, and perception, the mind will remain incapable of receiving the unconditioned Truth. Consider the Buddhist parable of the monkey mind. No idea represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol. Since man has no ideas, except those abstracted from external objects, he cannot be blessed by mere idea. Analogously, this means that no interpretation interprets itself – hence the absurdity of sola scriptura. All interpretations (e.g., rules, abstracted principles, symbols, etc.) point to something else. Since all abstracted forms are interpretations, abstracted forms themselves cannot render content determinant as previously explored. Hence, as long as one is focused on mental constructions, perceptions and other such things, one cannot begin to adequately approach the source of all these manifestations.12


§ XI


God doesn’t make mistakes – God has not “forsaken the world” or his creation. To assert as such is nonsensical and requires holding to a mix of deism and anthropomorphism. Let us consider two arguments, one from Proclus, another from Aquinas.

From Proclus; 

For if all things which exist have a natural appetition of their good; and if further there are things which derive their well-being from themselves and things which demand another’s help, things which have the cause of their good within them and things to which it is external: then in proportion as the former are nearer to the giver of their desire, so must they be superior to that which needs an extraneous cause of good and has its existence or its activity completed only by reception from without. Since, then, the self-sufficient has more likeness to the Good itself (yet falls short, in that it participates good and is not itself the primal Good), it is in some way akin to the Good, inasmuch as it can furnish its good out of its own being, whereas that which not only participates, but does so through an external medium, is at a further remove from the primal Good which is nothing else but good.13

This is all to say, that which is self-sufficient either in its existence or in its activity is superior to what is not self-sufficient but dependent upon another existence, said other existence which is the cause of its completeness. Said completeness may be as fundamental as its own existence. God is pure actuality, and thus without privation and so utterly perfect – God is the primal Good, Goodness itself. Now turning to Aquinas;

Everything that can be and not-be has a cause. For, considered in itself, it is indifferent to either, so that something else must exist which determines it to one. Since, then, it is impossible to go on to infinity, there must exist a necessary being which is the cause of all things that can be and not-be. Now, there is a certain kind of necessary being whose necessity is caused. But in this order of things, also, progression to infinity is impossible; so that we must conclude to the existence of something which is of itself necessary being. There can be but one such being…14

This, all men speak of as God.  Continuing the quotation;

Everything other than God, therefore, must be referred to Him as the cause of its being. Moreover, God is the maker of things inasmuch as He is in act. But by virtue of His perfection, God embraces the perfections of all, thus He is virtually all things. He is, therefore, the maker of all things. But this would not be the case if something besides God were capable of being otherwise than from Him; for nothing is of such a nature as to be from another and not from another, since if a thing is of a nature not to be from another, then it is through itself a necessary being, and thus can never be from another. Therefore, nothing can be except from God. 

God is transcendent but also immanent in the world – not a first principle that creates and then as a separate entity that leaves creation to be. If such a Deist God were the case, a God that creates then can be radically distinct from creation, creation would lose its universal predicate of existence and so cease to be. But that would mean that creation wouldn’t exist, which is evidently not the case and so Deism is not true. Only God is truly self-sufficient.

God has far from “forsaken” the world, or made it or any such particular of it out of mistake because he consciously supports the very existence of everything that has a particularised existence. In fact, as God is the Good, and causes subsist in their effects, creation, man, by his very existence is supported by this Primal Good, is dependent on the primal good and so is also good in some manner too. Perfection-itself makes no mistakes because that would be a privation of intellect, yet pure act has no privations of any kind and so makes no mistakes. 


[1] Plotinus., 1948. The Enneads. Boston: C.T. Branford Co. IV.4 § 3.

[2] ibid., IV.9 § 2.

[3] Plotinus, The Enneads, V.1 § 4.

[4] MacIntyre, A., 2011. A Short History Of Ethics. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 43.

[5] Plotinus, The Enneads, V.2, § 1. 

[6] ibid., V.2, § 2. 

[7] Ficino, M. and Farndell, A. Gardens Of Philosophy. M-Y Books, 2012. 19.

[8] ibid., p.20.

[9] ibid., p.20.

[10] Eckhart, Meister. The Complete Mystical Works. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, Sermon One Pf.1, Q101 , QT.57, 32.

[11] Ficino, Marsilio. De Sole, Book of the Sun. Sphinx 6: A Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts, London, 1994, § XII, 14.

[12] Kurak, M. The Epistemology of Illumination in Meister Eckhart. Philosophy and Theology, 13(2), 2001, pp.275-286.

[13] Proclus and Dodds, E, The Elements Of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, 11.

[14] Thomas, Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975. Book Two: Creation, 48, 49.

Nomosthetes and Ordinary Language

| Cesare Maccari - Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889. |

Language’s core function is to represent. A representation requires both a referent and an agent presented with the referent to produce the representation. The first linguistic sign, the ostensive, was performed in presence of its referent.1 Linguistic acts generally are assemblages of sorts, that if we continue following through, lead us to something of an infinite regress which ends up being circular on the macro level. i.e This word’s meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words… ad infinitum. So what breaks through language, being constituted by this regress, is to consider the given agent which constructs and/or presents the linguistic construct.

The Medievals also knew this – Meister Eckhart wrote that no communicative construct or apprehension of an external referent represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol. And since man has no ideas, except those abstracted from external things, he cannot “be blessed by mere idea”.2

A given communicative act is only intelligible with regard to the intention of the agent who makes said act. If you were alone in a forest and the sound of the rustling leaves started sounding like English words, perhaps even an intelligible phrase, say, “When the ruler’s seat is insecure, the great ministers revolt and the smaller ones pilfer.”3 Unless we were to associate agency to the leaves and the breeze which would posit that they have intellectual capacities, regardless of this audible construct corresponding to being a fragment of ancient Chinese wisdom from the Lî Yun, it would be meaningless. 

It would just so happen coincidentally to sound like the Lî Yun, unless the leaves and breeze were somehow not just alive but intelligent. Language, communicative acts, words themselves, are only intelligible with reference to the intentional agent who presents them to us, otherwise, we must construct our own meaning through interpretation, from words/phrases/ideas, of which we have inherited from other intentional agents. To consider this more socially speaking, in any scene of intentional agents, there will always be one who is the most “influential” at any given point in time – influence being constituted by having dominant representations over other rival representation presented by other intentional agents.

Because, out of all groups, there will be one whose representations are the most dominant. And within that group there will be an agent who is the most “influential” – the de facto Sovereign; herein lies the essential stupidity of libertarianism and its understanding of politics which fails to see authority as anything beyond mere coercive power. Power, at least as it is politically constituted, is rather the ability to direct attention to a given object – linguistic acts are its techne (tactics/tools/craft) through which it does this.

To illustrate; obviously, it is not the king’s coercive power over his military that keeps them inline but that loyalty is conferred, maintained and communicated through some set of representations. Whether this be payment for their services, mythology that holds them in awe or a complex ideological superstructure, all of this must be mediated through linguistic representation from King to military in some fashion. As a good friend of mine Alexander Iulianus remarked the other day, if you stick to your own definitions of language and simply assume that everyone else will operate on the same definitions, you will never know what they are truly saying. I think he hits the nail on the head. God, afterall, only becomes God when creation says “God”, or otherwise ho Theos, Deus, The Good, YHWH, Guđán, 천주, 上帝, He Who Is, and so on and so forth.

Take this in tandem with say Derrida’s understanding of language, specifically writing, that a signifier that can be made radically detached from what it signifies, moulded and “played with” – misconstrued even purposely so to rupture some totality4 – unlike speech which becomes unintelligible without its agent, writing can be retroactively reinterpreted by whatever dominant agent exists to do so, whether or not they be the original speaker. You can reinterpret a written signifier but reinterpreting a spoken signifier always traces back to a present intentionality. With writing, the agent that anchors meaning through intention is absent. 

By enregistering speech, inscription has as its essential objective, and indeed takes this fatal risk, the emancipation of meaning – as concerns any actual field of perception – from the natural predicament in which everything refers to the disposition of a contingent situation. This is why writing will never be simple “voice-painting*.5

*“Voice painting” is a reference to Voltaire’s rather naive understanding of writing.

Subsequently, we do have to conclude upon a fundamental fluidity to human language but also that it is only fluid insofar as it is not anchored by human agents. Its anchorage to intentional agents also follows in an implicitly hierarchical fashion, to Derrida’s horror – hence why he considers writing less “totalitarian” than speech, given writing’s ability to be played with. Surely to Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics was nothing short of Fascism. There’s no real way for an audience to “play” with the speech of a speaker. There is no possibility for forcing absence through rupturing structure because unlike speech, writing can persist without the continuous effort of its writer. It can be written on the page, passed around in different contexts, reinterpreted regardless of accuracy or what have you.

This is not to say that choices about the use of words are themselves entirely fluid and arbitrary; humans always deliberate towards some end, and in light of that agent-cause, the scope of uses and also interpretations of a given word naturally narrows.

So, a given word is really made fundamentally intelligible by virtue of the principal-agent who leads “linguistic frame”, that is to say, has the most influence over the word’s use and application and disciplines the social scene to use it as such, towards his chosen end/deliberated purpose. With writing, this applies to whoever deliberates the dominant interpretation, and so it seems as though that Derrida’s attempt to play and fondle with writing to escape Caesar, to suspend and exit structure, utterly fails.

In this sense, you cannot actually appeal to “ordinary uses of language” for the basis of meaning. Human language is a structure meant to represent something, it is not the referent it represents. To treat language as such is quite a gross absolutisation of it. Hence why something like biblical/scriptural literalism is contrary to the religion itself – you end up deracinating the meaning of the text in thinking that its representation can be the same as its referent. E.g. Christ speaking the actual words of the Sermon on the Mount is not the same as the written Sermon on the Mount in either the Greek Septuagint, or in whatever version one might read — writing loses the illocutionary force that speech has, hence “deracination”.

Marcus Cunningham has a fantastic article on illocution and scriptural interpretation here.

Consider again what I paraphrased Eckhart saying above. Analogously to that argument, this means that no interpretation interprets itself – hence the absurdity of sola scriptura. All signs and interpretations point to something else, and so the only way to fix them to the spot is through power itself. Hence the practical necessity of a centralised authority like the Church and its Priesthood. Do people reappropriate words/ideas/phrases for new purposes, sometimes malicious purposes? 100% they do. What is the appropriate countermeasure to this? Well, it sure isn’t appealing to a supposed normality of language which does not really exist as most people tend to do, especially the no-frills brand of western conservatism does.

To conclude, let us consider Plato’s argument from Cratylus on the nature of names, the unification of form and meaning, precisely what Derrida designates as structure6, which runs almost entirely parallel to what I have just said now;

Socrates: Don’t we instruct each other, that is to say, divide things according to their natures?

Hermogenes: Certainly

Socrates: So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and wood, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for diving being.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is not a shuttle a weaver’s tool?

Hermogenes: Of course.

Socrates: So a weaver will use shuttles well; and to use a shuttle well is to use it as a weaver does. By the same token, an instructor will use names well; and to use a name well is to use it as an instructor does.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is everyone a carpenter or only those who possess the craft of carpentry?

Hermogenes: Only those who possess the craft.

Socrates: Good. So whose product does an instructor use when he uses a name?

Hermogenes: I do not know.

Socrates: Can you at least tell me this? Who or what provides us with the names we use?

Hermogenes: I don’t know that either.

Socrates: Don’t you think that rules* provide us with them?

Hermogenes: I suppose they do.

Socrates: So, when an instructor uses a name, he’s using the product of a rule setter.

Hermogenes: I believe he is.

Socrates: Do you think that every man is a rule-setter or only the one who possesses the craft?

Hermogenes: Only the one who possesses the craft.

Socrates: It follows that it isn’t every man who can give names, Hermogenes, but only a name-maker, and he, it seems is a rule-setter – the king of craftsman most rarely found among human beings.

Hermogenes: I suppose so.7

*The greek here is ‘ho nomos’. 

Names are a function of the law-giver in relation to real natures/referents which are fixed by form. Form has normality as Plato would argue, sure, but its signifiers don’t have normality by any necessity – the name is not itself identical to the form, and hence why Plato considers names to be more immediately a function of the “nomothetes” – the lawgiver, i.e. authority. 


[1] Gans, Eric. The Origin of Language. Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2019, 38.

[2] Kurak, M. The Epistemology of Illumination in Meister Eckhart. Philosophy and Theology, 13(2), 2001, pp.275-286.

[3]  Max F. Muller. Sacred Books of the East. London: Routledge, 2004, Li Ki, Lî Yun, 2.11.

[4] Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, Force and Signification. 86-87.

[5] ibid., 13.

[6] ibid., 4.

[7] Plato and Cooper, J. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009, Cratylus 388b – 389a.

Concurrent Centrality

| Arthur Georg von Ramberg - The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo, 1865. |

I was recently posed with the question that if the Centre/Sovereign has primary authority over the scene within which social life is undertaken, and that the Centre is always held regardless of how ephemerally it might be, and that for this reason, the Centre is in many regards immutable to the social order, what about the authority of the father over his children, of the teacher over her students, of subsidiaries broadly speaking? 

Or of moral agents under the dominant authority in general? 

Do they have any real autonomy which allows them real authority as it pertains to the disciplines they reside over? 

I think a useful analogy from Thomism can be used in explaining the answer to this question and that a proper exploration of Aquinas’s natural-theology-grounded politics would be of much value. Take the distinction between principal/primary and instrumental/secondary causality in the concurrentist scheme. I will not be going into detailed justifications for concurrentism as a resolution to the free will vs. determinism debate because – I am primarily using it here to illustrate how the logic behind this argument works. Edward Feser’s excellent discussions of it are here, here and here for you to explore. 

For St. Thomas Aquinas, God is the primary cause for the existence of things and imbues within some things the possibility for self-causing; humans being primary among such things with this quality. God, having set limitations upon, and given existence to agent A, has not robbed A of his own ability to act within the confines of said existence; A still retains instrumental causality.  If you will excuse my use of an analogy within an analogy for a moment;  if you draw a triangle with a red pen, both you as primary cause and the pen as secondary cause are simultaneous causes of the effect. You are the cause of there being any triangle there at all, the pen being the reason the triangle is red. God is the cause of there being a reality within which moral agents can engage in metapolitical discussion through analogy-ception yet we are the instrumental reason why metapolitical discussion through analogy-ception is taking place.

The political order is a microcosm of this cosmological distinction. When talking of the function of governance, St. Thomas writes;

The aim of any ruler should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule. The duty of the pilot, for instance, is to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea, and to bring it unharmed to the port of safety. Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. If this is removed, the benefit of social life is lost and, moreover, the multitude in its disagreement becomes a burden to itself. The chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace. It is not even legitimate for him to deliberate whether he shall establish peace in the multitude subject to him, just as a physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal the sick man encharged to him, for no one should deliberate about an end which he is obliged to seek, but only about the means to attain that end.1

Note that the ruler’s obligation to carry out the duties of a ruler are not imposed upon him, but are a quality of him occupying such a role in the first place, however he may come to inhabit the Centre. The unity of peace, social cohesion, the absence of political factionalism – imperium in imperio – is crucial for his ability to rule. Hence why it is not even legitimate for us to speak of him as to whether or not he will seek to establish peace in the multitude subject to him. Even if he were to support a proxy against a given opposing political faction, he only does so in order to remove said political faction from being an impediment to his rule, that is, to procure peace and social cohesion.

Ontological absolutism finds a comfortable home in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. The action of a client, the periphery in the case of High + Low vs. The Middle and/or otherwise the subsidiary, is only explainable with relation to the agent that actualises their political significance; The Centre and the ends to which said agent actualises them; centralisation for political security. Why this end and not another? A simple Aristotelian explanation. Assuming insecurity, the political agent in question who holds the centre naturally will attempt to centralise, that is, to secure its hold over the Centre. Insecure power is by its nature in a position of direct competition and conflict. Due to this condition, to do good to itself – that is to act as a power, not qualified further as “insecure” – said power centre must circumnavigate said competitors or raise some force against them in order to create the conditions in which he might come to rule directly. With the ability to rule directly, his access to their principle good is restored. Without it, the prerequisite good of political cohesion must be established. Insofar as he cannot rule directly, that is, insofar as he is insecure, the ruler must centralise to establish said cohesion. Continuing the quotation from Aquinas;

Wherefore the Apostle, having commended the unity of the faithful people, says: “Be ye careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus, the more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be. For we call that more useful which leads more directly to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several—just as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many.

The Centre is what principally holds together a given social scene, within which it sets boundaries and upholds the social rules of interaction within which political/social/economic life is undertaken. It does discipline the moral agents within its scope but the sheer existence of the Centre does not rob them of their instrumental agency. To argue that it does would be to argue for a degree of omnipotent determinism that could not be the case for much of human history prior to the rapid centralisation of power proceeding the industrial and liberal revolutions, and that does not exist now, as of yet. For an example, your choice to work within this or that profession, while such a selection might be narrowed due to the nature of the social order, contingent on the Centre, yet your choice of this or that profession is still your decision. Likewise, this goes for the company that potentially hires you.

This also helps address another notion in simultaneity, that of the ethics of governance from an ontologically absolute position. To answer this, we need to get at the heart of the essential role governance plays, of which St. Thomas has already outlined quite nicely for us. The function of the king, the Sovereign, the Centre is to maintain the unity of the political order – its absence of factionalism, of imperium in imperio, allows for the unity of peace. Insofar as the Centre cultivates this peace, moral agents can flourish in their various social roles, including the Sovereign himself.

As it is interior peace and social cooperation which allows the ruler to conduct his various political projects, to upset this is to throw a wrench in his own works. It is very much in the ruler’s interests to pursue the interior goods to this practice; social cooperation, and human flourishing, human perfection and so forth, whether the given agent holding the centre is consciously aware of such a reality or otherwise. 

Nonetheless, much like a muscle, the habitual exercising of the various virtues that constitute what is in the king’s nature to rule further actualises the ruler as kingly. It is through hexis that virtues are developed. As, to be courageous, one must develop and exercise the capacity to do courageous acts, the king in learning how to command well and coordinate political life well comes to embody the virtues constitutive of kingship better. To engage in some act that is not conducive to his role doesn’t in any way rob the ruler of his virtues, they still do persist as real potentials by virtue of being in the political position that is most conducive to those abilities and their exertions and as a real nature by virtue of holding the Centre. 

So, subsidiaries and moral agents within a given political scene do retain agency, perhaps not the agency to collectively overturn the Centre qua vox populi seeing as such voice is a construction of authority, and that historically speaking “the people” or what have you require some fundamental authority to actualise said “collective will” into force of political significance, such act subordinates the very notion of popular will to the final cause of said patronage by the efficient political cause – that of the aforementioned sovereign authority. Yet moral agents still retain autonomy within the space allocated by said authority to act. Power, after all, is not merely the exercise of force, but the ability to lead and hold shared attention. To hold to ontological absolutism is not thus to hold to the position that all is disciplinarily executed by the will of the Centre within a political scene, but the production of dominant representations and the maintenance of some unified understanding by some fundamental agent.

Much as God is necessary for there to be any existing thing and is the prime mover of all that exists, the centre is necessary for there to be any political entity and is the prime mover of all under its domain. There is by necessity a pronomian relationship between God and creation, centre and political order. It is explicitly pronomian under the Thomistic formulation as Logos governs creation, man being the animal that possesses logos – given the human that occupies the centre – his logos governs the social order. At both levels, it is intellection that governs. 

Revising the Platonic logic that the techne of rule, as analogous to medicine, must be practised for the prosperity of another upon whom the practice is exercised – medicine is for the benefit of the patient, not the doctor – yields now an interesting result. For it is not just that the secure sovereign would indeed exercise his virtues of authority with his subjects as the ends but also that the flourishing of his subjects is in his interests. They are both means and ends. We now have a relationship with a degree of circularity, a feedback loop. That a healthy population that is not engaged in social diatribes is more useful for the secure ruler than a dispossessed and diseased population goes without saying. A military that cannot fight and construct shared projects is no military at all.

In further exploration the ontologically absolute character of St. Thomas’s political thinking; the possession of property, and the existence of inequalities of one sort or another, and thus authority, Aquinas sees as natural to man even in the prelapsarian state of innocence. This has particularly interesting as it pertains to the Katzian challenge posed to Christianity;  namely that Christendom ultimately failed to establish the divine sanction of kings due to its over-turning of sacrificial “violent centralisation”2, and so is much to blame for the developments of liberalism. This critique should be kept in mind as we continue. Aquinas effectively severs much of the connection between political authority and the economy of salvation, evident in his willingness to recognise the legitimacy of non-christian states, notably pagan ones even when they exercise political authority over members of the faithful. Such was also the position of Pope Innocent IV3. How he came to this conclusion, as Francis Oakley argues in his work Mortgage of the Past, was in reasoning that if it was only as a result of the Fall that servile subjection had come into being, that this was not the case with civil subjection to political authority. Political authority by its nature is established upon, and cares for homonioa; the common good of unity. 

Dominion is grounded in human law whereas the distinction between those who are faithful and those who are not, is from divine law. Divine law being a law of grace, does not abolish human law which is founded upon natural reason; note here the concurrentism. As the broader theological and philosophical Thomistic framework goes, politics finds its foundations in natural theology rather than the revealed theology of Redemption allowing for a Christian Neoplatonic system to have Aristotle’s teleological political naturalism subsumed within it. 

That Aquinas’s treatise on kingship began with the affirmation of man’s social and political nature, as should be expected of his Aristotelianism, and he is firm in the view that political order exists not simply to ensure material well-being but rather to make possible the life of virtue is instrumental to the integration of Christian and Aristotelian morality into his natural political theology.  He is insistent that men live in their given social order for the very purpose of living well together, a thing which the individual living alone could not attain; but of which we might add is would be an absurdity to try and affirm because nowhere does or has man lives radically distinct from any authority or social order. But insofar as he is apart from social life, he is despondent and pathetic. The good life is the virtuous life; the virtuous life is the end for which men gather together. 

To quote directly from Oakley; 

Understandably, in discussing the directive principle needed to govern the political community as an end-ordered-entity, he should depart from Aristotle and straightforwardly affirm monarchy to be his ideal and the government of a king to be the best.  In support of that position, and affirming that “in all things nature does what is best,” he points out that “every natural government is government by one.” Such is the case in every species of government, from that of the “king bee” over the bees to that of the one God over the universe as a whole. 

Here one can detect once echoes and harmonics of that Hellenistic philosophy of kingship which, having been mediated by Philo Judaeus, and Eusebius, had come to be domesticated in the political thinking of Christian antiquity and medieval Byzantium. Man, Aquinas points out, is microcosm paralleling the macrocosm both in the political and the cosmological. What the soul is to the body, the king, a “shepherd to his people”, is to the kingdom, and God is to the world. The position of king, then, is clearly an elevated one. Behind his authority stands the law, both natural and divine. As St. Paul insists (Rom.13), those who resist such authority “bring upon themselves damnation.”4 

Thus in response to the Katzian critique, it seems quite clear that Thomism’s concurrent relationship between human law and divine law – between God and Earthly authority – allows for the unique enshrinement of kingship-itself as inherently divine, with scripture at hand to support this, whilst also keeping the quintessentially Christian abolishment of sacrifice. I’m guessing that this line of thought did not present itself to Katz because he brackets off metaphysical inquiry due to the fact that it takes declarative language for granted. Yet, one need not then fret that Christianity necessarily lends itself to liberalism – one of its greatest apologists having quite easily presented a divine sanction of kings whereby the according cosmogony is one in which authority is hard-baked into human orders – a chain of being governed by Logos as at all levels. Much as our cosmos is monarchic, so are our social orders – just as they were meant to be. To end on an extended version of the nuggets of scripture Oakley previously provided;

Romans 13:1-4 | Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.5 


[1] Aquinas, Thomas, Gerald B. Phelan, Joseph Kenny, and Ignatius Theodore Eschmann. De Regno: Ad Regem Cypri. Bismarck, ND: Divine Providence Press, 2014. Ch.III:XVII, 12-14. 

[2] Bouvard, Dennis. Anthropomorphics. Perth: Imperium Press, 2020, 48-50.

[3] Oakley, F. The Mortgage Of The Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, Chapter 7.

[4] ibid., 113.

[5] I always either quote from the Knox Translation Bible or Douay-Rheims. Sometimes a mix but the above is purely Douay-Rheims.