In this post I am looking at Simon Oliver’s Philosophy, God and Motion. You might wonder why motion matters to theology at all. Oliver offers a terse overview of some options concerning the nature of motion: “For Plato, in wholly undualistic fashion, motion is the eternal stability of the Forms; it is, for Aristotle, the means of our passage from potency to actuality, it is, for Grosseteste, the means of the propagation of the universe from the simple, eternal light; it is, for Aquinas, the means of our participation in the eternal dynamism of the Trinitarian life of God” (2). I will, as far as I am able, provide an economic overview of the chapters with some concluding thoughts.
Chapter 1: Plato’s Timaeus
Oliver looks at Plato’s Timaeus to examine Plato’s cosmology of change and becoming, focusing his attention on the nature and purpose of motion in the treatise. The Demiurge forms a hierarchy of motions, based on the World soul’s division into sameness and difference. The sameness governs the motion of the universe, with all other motion participating in it. Mankind comes to move away from base opinion, furthermore, by participation in the motion, symmetry and proportion of the World Soul, which is the “ontological condition of possibility” for knowledge of the forms. Reason itself is a motion, and with all motion knows perfection cyclically, and obtains that perfection as a participation in the forms – most specifically the form of the good. Motion is, therefore, teleologically oriented towards a deeper participation in the Forms, and motion is the mediation between the forms and the cosmos. Oliver provides a nice summary:
The motion which characterises the realm of becoming, therefore, is both beautiful and symmetrical; it is a rational revolution which expresses the harmonic balance of the Good. Thus Platonic cosmology is not an acquisitive exercise which seeks the attainment of facts, after the fashion of an inexorable forward motion towards an indeterminate end. Rather, motion as presented in the Timaeus is the perfect synthesis of the ideal ‘end’ with the embodied means of fulfilment in that end” (28).
Chapter 2: Aristole: Ecstasy and Intensifying Motion
Aristotle followed his teacher in his emphasis on “motion” as a central defining feature of humanities “enquiry into the nature of the universe and its relation to a transcendent eternal” (29). Here, Oliver argues that motion has a teleological end that, for Aristotle as for Plato, is oriented to the fundamental goal of the Good. For human beings, motion is central to the attainment of virtue in a life worthy of its own end – the virtuous life – and, in Oliver’s description of this movement, “the potential becomes actual and the eternal is glimpsed in time’s movement as motion is intensified as actuality” (30). Motion, for Aristotle, is always moving towards one pole or another, rather than simply being motion for its own sake – it is a “passage” from potency to act. These poles are, Aristotle states, in existence, “…form and shortage of form; in quality, white and black; in quantity, the perfectly normal and an achievement short of perfection” (31). Form, therefore, is not a Platonic transcendental realm, but is the teleological end which nature is oriented.
Like Plato, Aristotle gives primacy to circular motion. Oliver states, “Within locomotion, it is circular motion in place which Aristotle believes is the first and most perfect motion, and this is associated most particularly with the motion of the first heaven. This motion is most perfect because, in being circular, it has no beginning or end; unlike other motions, it has no contrary” (46). Circular motion has no beginning, middle or end – it is fully complete in itself – and is therefore closest to the eternal.
Oliver provides a helpful summary:
Motion can therefore be most generally understood as determined towards a unified end in the Good. As all things, by their natural motion, seek to attain their own actuality, they thereby seek their own particular good which partakes in the perfection of the whole cosmos. It is the Good which constitutes the ultimate and most general final cause of the intensification of being through potency to actuality in ecstatic motion” (49).
Chapter 4: St. Thomas Aquinas – The God of Motion
In order to keep this review under control, I have skipped over his third chapter on Grosseteste, which is incredibly informative and dense, and am going to move right into his discussion of Aquinas. After that, I will skip straight to Newton. Oliver begins by addressing the notion of sacra doctrina in Thomas, which “reorients” humanity to its proper end. What kind of resources does Aquinas’ notion of motion provide sacra doctrina? Primarily, motion finds its orientation in the immanent life of God – in the emanation of the persons of the Trinity – which serves as the undergirding principle of all motion.
Following Aristotle, Aquinas holds that actuality must ontologically precede potentiality (91) – a mover (which is in actuality), is that which moves something from potency to act. The human soul, therefore, is a mover, but it is a moved mover – it is moved by its divine generation from the mind of God (potency) to existence (actuality). But this raises the question if the mover has to share the same motion as it moves by, as is the case with heat bringing water to boil by sharing its heat. “Must God,” Oliver questions, “be in some sense univocal with the creation he moves?” Aquinas invokes another image, that of a builder and a house, to depict how God relates to his creation. Creatures, therefore, in some sense, resemble God, even though God does not “resemble” creatures (109).
More importantly for Aquinas, and our interests, is the development of motion and sacra doctrina. Oliver notes,
…Aquinas states that he has shown that the purpose of sacra doctrina is ‘to make God known, not only as he is in himself, but as the beginning and end of all things and of reasoning creatures especially’. He is now to show God as the beginning and end of motion, motion being a fundamental characteristic of created nature, for even if something is not itself in motion, it is a crucial aspect of that thing that it is in potency and therefore liable to motion” (106).
Oliver seeks to show that “…motion is not that which separates creation from its creator, but is the very means of their analogical relation” (108). Hinting back at the discussion of univocal predication, Oliver notes that Aquinas utilizes the concept of emanation for the “active self-expression of a nature in relation to others in the production of another self” (111). God, who is both pure act and motionless, does not lose anything in emanation, but creates out of his superabundance. Aquinas develops this in the hierarchy of being, where the ability to create without loss is tied to the notion of greatness.
Aquinas ties the idea of the eternal law to the divine essence, so that all laws are analogically related to the divine being. Lawfulness is therefore a kind of participation in the eternal law of God, and is necessarily an orientation to the proper end of creatures. As Oliver summarizes, “one might say that the physical motion of bodies and the ethical motion of human souls, which are subject to the different sciences of physics and practical philosophy, are nevertheless held in analogical relation by their participation in eternal law which constitutes the motionless limit and end of all motion, namely the universal good” (125).
Newton and the Non-Trinitarian View of Motion
With Newton, Oliver elides, we lose all notion of participation with God in creaturely reality. Interestingly, Oliver suggests that Newton’s Arianism is partly to blame. God, rather than obtaining the dynamism of a triune life and grounding, analogically, motion in creation, Newton posits a monadic God and an “infinite,” “eternal” and “immutable” creation. What is deemed “absolute space” is now the basis for creation, and, in Oliver’s words, appears to be “begotten” of God: “Whereas, for Aquinas, God creates and sustains the world through Christ’s emanation from the Father, so for Newton, God creates the world in a co-eternal and uncreated absolute space through the exercise of his will” (173). The ontological basis for creation becomes the willed creative act of God – now the economy – rather than the inner-life of God. Objects and creatures, therefore, are ambivalent to motion and rest, and description of that motion and rest is reduced to “basic facts about the nature of a body” without reference to further explanation (168). Again, Oliver summarizes:
The lack of Trinitarian relationality in Newton’s conception of God means that the universe cannot be thought of as a hierarchy and system of related motions which are images of the divine life, but rather as the action of one being, God, within absolute space to instantiate a material body, whereupon the created being retains a primitive state of motion which is discrete and self-explanatory” (174).
Since this overview is already too long, let me stop here. Oliver provides a fascinating look at motion through philosophical theology, and, I think plausibly, highlights the inadequacy of Newton’s account. Concluding with a look at quantum physics and the issue of bi-locality, Oliver critiques Newton and points back to Aquinas as providing a more adequate ontology and cosmology.
What do we think about Aquinas’ use of God’s inner-life in particular? I think it would be an interesting study to look at the result of Newton on theology, tracing that alongside Kant’s critiques and the re-shifting of the doctrine of God to the economy. Any thoughts?