Chapter 41. Guardian Angels: Quasi First Principles

I recall reading in Aquinas’ De Veritate that our capacity for intuition of first principles, including our grasp of the first principles of practical reason, (FPPR), i.e., the natural law, by way of synderesis, is actually a kind of angelic power.

Here is the text (De Veritate Q 16 Art 1):

As Dionysius says, divine wisdom “joins the ends of nobler things with the beginnings of lesser things.” For natures which are ordained to one another are related to each other as contiguous bodies, the upper limit of the lower body being in contact with the lower limit of the higher one. Hence, at its highest point a lower nature attains to somet1iing which is proper to the higher nature and shares in it imperfectly.

Now, the nature of the human soul is lower than the angelic nature, if we consider the natural manner in which each knows. For the natural and proper manner of knowing for an angelic nature is to know truth without investigation or movement of reason. But it is proper to human nature to reach the knowledge of truth by investigating and moving from one thing to another.

Hence, the human soul, according to that which is highest in it, attains to that which is proper to angelic nature, so that it knows some things at once and without investigation, although it is lower than angels in this, that it can know the truth in these things only by receiving something from sense.

However, there is a double knowledge in the angelic nature: one, speculative, by which angels see the truth of things simply and independently; and the other, practical. This second type of knowledge is posited both by the philosophers, who hold that the angels are the movers of the heavens and that all natural forms pre-exist in their foreknowledge, and by the theologians, who hold that the angels serve God in spiritual duties, according to which the orders of angels are distinguished.

Hence it is that human nature, in so far as it comes in contact with the angelic nature, must both in speculative and practical matters know truth without investigation. And this knowledge must be the principle of all the knowledge which follows, whether speculative or practical, since principles must be more stable and certain. Therefore, this knowledge must be in man naturally, since it is a kind of seed plot containing in germ all the knowledge which follows, and since there pre-exist in all natures certain natural seeds of the activities and effects which follow. Furthermore, this knowledge must be habitual so that it will be ready for use when needed.

Thus, just as there is a natural habit of the human soul through which it knows principles of the speculative sciences, which we call understanding of principles, so, too, there is in the soul a natural habit of first principles of action, which are the universal principles of the natural law. This habit pertains to synderesis. This habit exists in no other power than reason, unless, perhaps, we make understanding a power distinct from reason. But we have shown the opposite above.

It remains, therefore, that the name synderesis designates a natural habit simply, one similar to the habit of principles, or it means some power of reason with such a habit. And whatever it is makes little difference, for it raises a doubt only about the meaning of the name. However, if the power of reason itself, in so far as it knows naturally, is called synderesis, it cannot be so considered apart from every habit, for natural knowledge belongs to reason by reason of a natural habit, as is clear of the understanding of principles.

In a sense we have, besides the powers of ratiocination proper to us qua humans, some residual inheritance of the angelic powers of intuition.

And it is possible that these first principles direct us to basic goods, as well as the intentions of what are inferred secondary principles. Currently the literature on natural law, say what Germain Grisez and John Finnis focus on, are the basic, fundamental principles. My suggestion is that, some of the derive-able or infer-able secondary principles of natural law are also available to us in a self-evident way. To be clear, I mean to say that there could well be two modes of epistemic access to the same secondary precepts, delivering overlapping and similar prescriptions. One mode is demonstrative, and deductive, and moves from the FPPR; whereas the other mode is self-evident, grasped intuitively.

I am inclined to think my speculations are likely true.

These secondary precepts delivered by way of the latter intuitive mode of epistemic access would of course be self evident and are hencee a kind of “first principle”. This can be a little confusing. FPPR are self-evident, and cannot in any way have been inferred. And secondary precepts of the natural law are inferred, and hence demonstrated. But then amongst these, some of these secondary precepts are demonstrable, except that these are demonstrable secondary precepts which are at the same time also available self-evidently. To minimize the confusion perhaps there might be a term for these. I will call these quasi first principles of practical reason (Q-FPPR). Maybe there can be a better term. But until that is available let’s call these Q-FPPR. Meaning they are in part, and in a sense first principles. Afterall, whilst self-evident, they may also be derived from prior principles, which are in turn absolutely first principles without qualification.

Now I suggest that taking pictures, especially in certain ways, such as in rangefinder photography, in an evaluative way as has been discussed earler, or even when we confront atrocities and have experiences of contrast, sometimes surfaces and emerges these intuitions. Meaning, rangefinder photography surfaces the grasp of basic goods ala FPPR but also certain normative directives and judgments proper to Q-FPPR or secondary precepts of the natural law. This hypothesis also fits well the talk about ways that images have critical value, stimulating critical consciousness raising, as Walter Benjamin says.

Now this has also some implicatins for how we can philsosophise, or do ethics. Afterall, we have to admit that, even if we can grasp some of the Q-FPPR, they are prone to error — as Aquinas also agress — at least more prone to error than the FPPR.

So I would suggest this way of doing photography and philosophy:

First, do photography. Collect images, as well as the insights and intuitions that accompany. Some of these are Q-FPPR.

Next, knowing that some of these insights could be true, and other erroneous, we need to discriminate them, as well as employ them. We may now employ demonstrative, deductive philosophical ratio-cinnation to seek to derive or demonstrate these very same principles. If they cannot be proven, then perhaps these were false leads.

But here’s the interesting thing. Some of these may turn out to be provable insights. . Obviously the intuition of quasi first principles cannot be as rigorous or clear and distinct as the intuition of the FPPR and are by their very nature prone to error, being the least manifest. But philosophy and ethics is seldom the immediate confrontation with the clear and distinct, as Descartes wished us to believe. Rather philosophy is often the searching after an insight, or in the words of Marion, a kind of calibration to gaze at the saturating phenomenon until it “shows”, and is a kind of “faith seeking understanding”, as Thomas Carlson has analyzed.

Here we have a kind preferential option for the poorly displaying insight. Such a preferential option is sound – why need we be biased against what is not immediately clear and distinct?! This constructive Cartesianism, as Hayek might call it, is as Gilson said, very unnatural, and lacks warrant.

In any event the prompting, leading intuition gained in this photographic exercise, although potentially vain and false, is still valuable and significant! Because it may be true. Without its beckoning, the true precept may not have been discovered, and attended to. It is very fitting to compare these insights to the prompting of our guardian angels – and all the more so since the Q-FPPR, like the FPPR precepts of the natural law, as are Dionysius says, our joining to the powers of the angels. Indeed they are not very different. They are a prompting to attend to a precept or action, with always the possibility that they may be the fictions of our imagination, but nevertheless, when attended to, after a period of critical reflection, turn out quite true.