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Aristotle’s Theory of Causes and the Holy TrinityNew Evidence About the Chronology and Religion of Nicolaus “of Damascus”

  • Silvia Fazzo et
  • Mauro Zonta

…plus d’informations

  • Silvia Fazzo
    CNRS UMR 8163
    Università degli Studi di Trento

  • Mauro Zonta
    Dipartimento di Studi Filosofici ed Epistemologici
    Università di Roma

Corps de l’article

From 1841 onwards, the Syrian Peripatetic scholar Nicolaus, the author of a comprehensive Compendiumof Aristotle’s Philosophy (Περὶ τῆς Ἀριστοτέλους φιλοσοφίας, De philosophia Aristotelis, thereafter : DPA), has been identified as the historian Nicolaus of Damascus (b. 64 bc ca.), a rhetor working at the service of Herod the Great (d. 4 ad).[1] The identification was first suggested by Eduard Meyer, the author of a Geschichte der Botanik and editor of a Latin version of Nicolaus’ treatise Περὶ φυτῶν. The identity for Nicolaus the Peripatetic was promptly accepted by Gottlieb Friedrich Roeper (the author of a book on Bar Hebraeus), later adopted by Eduard Zeller, and never radically questioned thereafter.

Since no ancient source supports either the identification of the two Nicolaus (i.e. the rhetor and the philosopher) or the 1st century bc/ad as date of composition for the DPA, both issues have recently been reconsidered afresh[2] : based on both external evidence about Nicolaus and the overall methodological character of the DPA, a significant shift in chronology has been suggested, from the 1st century (as originally proposed) to the 3rd-5th centuries ad, and possibly as late as the 4th. For, according to the well-known 13th-century Syriac author Gregory Bar Hebraeus (whose works are now an important source for fragments of the DPA and the only extant source for Nicolaus’ chronology) at the time of Julian the Apostate (361-363 ad) Nicolaus was one of the most prominent authorities in philosophical wisdom. Moreover, according to Bar Hebraeus, this Nicolaus lived not in Damascus, but in the Syrian city of Laodicea.

The evidence for an identification of the two Syriac Nicolaus is thus reduced to a minimum, especially taking into account the words of the Church Father Sophronius of Damascus, who prized his city for having been the native place of no less than thirteen Nicolaus, all of whom prided themselves for their philosophical skills.

A new piece of evidence — a fragment recently discovered by Mauro Zonta — comes now to press the identity issue further and to shed new light on Nicolaus. As will be discussed in what follows, there is reason to believe that he was a Christian[3] and was well acquainted with the Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity.[4]

If this is the case, Nicolaus produced a peculiarly Peripatetic version of this dogma : God is one, being a single substance, but He is also three, insofar as He is the efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause of the whole world. The fragment immediately follows a reference to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and this suggests that it was quoted from Nicolaus’ exposition of this book (a work of his which is quoted by a famous scholion in the ms. of Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, gr. 1853, f. 312r, possibly a section of the DPA itself). If so, it is likely that its original location in the book was framed within an account of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Lambda, ch. 6ss. (although it must be remembered that Nicolaus did not always keep the same order of contents as the one he found in Aristotle’s books[5]).

As for Aristotle’s own theology, the question whether his God, the Prime Mover, is an efficient or final cause is a very controversial matter, and it is not surprising that Nicolaus wished to harmonize those views as he could find good reasons in favour of both.

If he was a Christian, the idea that God as Creator is an efficient cause fits quite naturally in his exegesis of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as the introduction of the fragment indicates, in particular if one compares book 12, chapters 6-7, of this work.[6]

Concerning God as formal cause, this idea is less immediately evident in Aristotle. However in at least one passage of Lambda, his Prime Mover is said to be substance without matter, essence only (Lambda 1074a35, cf. 1071a36) ; this will allow Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 ad) to regard it as pure, immaterial form, εἶδος ἄνευ ὕλης (cf. e.g. Alexander’s Quaestiones I.1, p. 4.7-16,[7] I.25, p. 39.9s.).[8]

As for the connexion of these different kinds of causes to each other, Aristotle’s Physics II.7 states that in living beings the efficient cause is identical (at least, i.e., specifically identical) with the formal cause, and moreover that this is identical (both specifically and numerically) with the final cause. Thus the doctrine of the fragment, even if unusual, seems a plausible one for a Peripatetic scholar, and it warrants some historical and philosophical analysis for its peculiar harmonizing character.

Nicolaus’ interpretation of Aristotle’s Prime Mover seems to have been combined with the fundamental Christian view about the second person of the Trinity. According to this view, the Christ is ὁ λόγος as found already in the first words of St. John’s Gospel (λόγος belongs to Aristotle’s standard terminology to indicate the formal cause, see Metaph. passim, e.g. 983a28).

Can the final cause be understood as representing the Spirit ? Certainly the final cause might be identified as the soul, in accordance with Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and especially with his definition of soul as the final cause or perfection (ἐντελέχεια) of the living being in De Anima II. While the Holy Spirit is not identical with Aristotle’s soul, the idea of perfection is often connected to it by Church Fathers (e.g. John of Damascus[9]). Moreover, the concept of “final cause” can be regarded as an expression of God’s perfection in truth, knowledge, will and love as we will see in some later, namely Mediaeval sources for Christian theology.[10]

With this all, it must be noted that Nicolaus’ explanation of God’s Trinity implies a commitment by God to the world, namely three different ways of relating to it. On one hand, this distinguishes it from a purely theological Trinitarian doctrine, where the relation among the three Persons is at issue rather than their relation to the world.[11] On the other hand, insofar as it can be regarded as an attempt to reduce the extramundane character of Aristotle’s theology,[12] it falls in line with the doctrine of Providence which is peculiar to late antiquity’s Aristotelianism, from Alexander of Aphrodisias onward (200 ad ca.).

In the introduction of Nicolaus’ fragment, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is mentioned (a reference which is much more likely to originate from Nicolaus himself than to be an independent addition by the Jewish author who quoted the fragment, Avner of Burgos). This shows a further common feature between Nicolaus and Alexander : both were claiming to explain the thought of Aristotle, while putting forward theories which were not really Aristotle’s theories, but rather merely compatible with them. This tendency, though a fairly common trend within the Aristotelian tradition, is worth mentioning here because it guarantees for the attribution of the fragment quoted below to a purely Aristotelian scholar, Nicolaus the Peripatetic, the author of the DPA. Indeed, Nicolaus the author of the fragment produced a peculiarly Peripatetic version of the Trinitarian dogma.

At the same time, his theory is quite obviously related to the highly controversial question of how the Holy Trinity is to be conceived. This offer a plausible criterion for dating the fragment.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the first well-known occurrence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is probably the one found in Tertullian’s Adversus Praxeam, written in c. 210 ad.[13] If this is a terminus post quem, the passage could not have been written by our Nicolaus before the 3rd century ad.

Second, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity does not became a theologic-philosophical doctrine in the terms of the classical tradition, and especially of theory of causes, before the first half of the 4th century, the era of the first great theological disputations, including the one concerning Arius’ heresy and its resolution at the Council of Nicaea (325 ad). This is another likely terminus post quem for Nicolaus’ application of Aristotle’s theory of causes to this controversial point.[14]

Third, Nicolaus holds that the three causes are one and the same substance (apparently just one, and not three beings identical in substance). If, as already suggested, the three causes are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, this means that both the Son and the Holy Spirit are one substance with the Father.

A theory dividing God into three different divinities was circulating, and subsequently disclaimed by the Catholic Church in the second half of the 3rd century (260).[15] Around this time, a doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son was apparently held by Paul of Samosata and condemned by the Antiochene Synod in 268.[16]

Then in 325 ad, the Council in Nicaea, dealing chiefly (against Arius) with the Son, the second Person in the Trinity, established that the Son (and the Son only) is ὁμοούσιος, consubstantial with the Father. Only a few decades later, responding to further controversies concerning the status of the Spirit (which some Egyptian Christians regarded as made by God), Athanasius of Alexandria said that the Spirit as well is ὁμοούσιος with the Father.[17] This view, though far from uncontroversial, was accepted by the Synod held in Alexandria (362 ad) under Athanasius’ leadership.

A similar view was accepted by the First Council in Constantinople (381 ad), in a form inspired by the teaching of Basilius of Caesarea (c. 330-378 ad). There, the doctrine that regarded the Holy Spirit as being a creation of the Father (held by the so-called Pneumatomachians) was decisively rejected as well.

But the idea of ὁμοούσιος (which, notably, referred principally to the Son in relation to the Father) was then understood less as identity than as similarity in substance : like ὁμοιοούσιος, “of the similar nature”[18] and concerning the Holy Spirit, Basilius rather insisted on its being ὁμότιμος, “worth of the same worship”, with the Father and the Son. This is the doctrine expressed by the Symbolum Nicaenum-Constantinopolitanum, where the Son is consubstantialem Patri (ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατριν), whereas the Spirit, though being cum Patre et Filio adorandum et conglorificandum (in the Greek : σὺν πατρὶ καὶ υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον), is not said to be consubstantiale.[19]

Now, even if it is difficult to find a neat terminus ante quem for Nicolaus’ theological position, if we accept that Nicolaus, not being an original theologian himself, is likely to have relied on those assumptions about the Trinity that held most authority by Eastern theologians of his time,[20] then the strongest parallel is with the theories of Athanasius and at the Synod in Alexandria of 362. Such an assumption corresponds strikingly with the chronology based on Bar Hebraeus’ account, according to which Nicolaus floruit in the times of Julian, emperor in 361-363 ad.

More parallels to Nicolaus’ theory can be sought and found in theological texts, especially from the 12th c. onward. Some general references may be of interest and will be given below following the actual edition and translation of the relevant fragment from Nicolaus by Mauro Zonta.

The Spanish Jewish philosopher Avner of Burgos (c. 1270-1345) wrote a number of books about philosophical and theological issues, some of which probably date from after c. 1320, when he converted to Christianity and defended his conversion through an opposition to another Spanish Jewish scholar, Isaac Polgar. Avner of Burgos’ reply to Isaac Polgar’s criticism is found in his work Teshuvot la-Meharef (Replies to the Critic, written in Hebrew and preserved in one manuscript only : Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, Parmense 2440, folios 8r-66r). While examining the question of the relationships between the Creator (i.e. God) and the things created by Him, Avner attempts to demonstrate that such relationships are “substantial” ones. To support this, he quotes an interpretation of an Aristotelian doctrine, allegedly found in the Metaphysics,[21] which he claims to have taken from Nicolaus (apparently, from books 2 or 3 of his DPA, which include an interpretation of the contents of Aristotle’s Metaphysics).

Alfonso de Valladolid (Avner of Burgos), Teshuvot la-Meharef, in ms. Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, Parmense 2440, folio 20r, lines 8-16[22] :

forme: forme pleine grandeur

These facts are explained by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, (i.e.) that God is the three[23] distant causes of the whole world at once, i.e. the action, the form and the aim. And concerning them Nicholas in the name of Aristotle wrote that God is one in substance, three in definition, that is to say, one cannot think that those (principles), being one substance which is God — i.e. that with which He makes the world, and that with which He is its form, and that with which He is its aim — are separated from Him, even in thought, nor even when we consider that[24] the world was void and absent, and after this has come to be ; (in fact), if so (i.e. if those principles depart from Him), He (= God) would be neither a god nor a First Cause.

Most likely Avner found this passage in the Arabic version of the DPA, probably written in the 9th century, and based upon a previous Syriac version of the Greek original text. The Arabic version might still have been extant in 13th century Spain, since it was apparently quoted by the Spanish Jewish philosopher Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera (c. 1225-1295).[25] At any rate, it had certainly been found there in the 12th century, as there are a few brief passages from it quoted by Averroes.[26] Since both the Greek and the Arabic texts have been lost, and there is only a very short Syriac summary of some parts of that work in a Cambridge manuscript as well as a number of quotations in Bar Hebraeus,[27] this passage, albeit very short, can be useful for the reconstruction of the lost original text.

A relevant question to explore, to which we cannot now foresee the answer, is whether, when, and by whom, a connection between the Holy Trinity and the Aristotelian theory of the four causes was established among Christian theologians.

The question is a good one because the theory is rarely found in literature before what we may think is the age of Nicolaus, even if we suppose that he wrote his work (as according to Bar Hebraeus) in the 4th century ad.

We have already quoted some parallels in pseudo-Athanasius. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the 5th c., St. Augustine’s De trinitate almost ignores the connection between the idea of Trinity and the concept of “cause”.[28]

If we look for a clear comparison of the nature of the Holy Trinity to three of the four Aristotelian causes in the Latin world, we can find it in a much later period, around c. 1100, in connection with the school of Chartres. Theodoricus of Chartres (d. 1150), brother of Bernard of Chartres, in his Tractatus de sex dierum operibus (written before 1140), compared the material cause to the four elements, created by God ; the efficient cause, to the Father ; the formal cause, to the Son ; the final cause, to the Holy Spirit, which Theodoricus identified with the anima mundi.[29] Some decades later, in the Polycraticus by John of Salisbury (c. 1170), the three Aristotelian concepts of efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause, are said to be identified by Plato (!). God’s strength, wisdom, and goodness, according to the author, correspond to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.[30] Accepting this, one has to assume that the Christ is identified with God’s wisdom, as well as with the Logos, already in Origenes.

A similar interpretation is apparently found in Albert the Great (1193-1280), who may have implicitly identified the Father with the efficient cause, His idea (i.e. the Logos, his Son) with the formal cause, His goodness (very probably, the Holy Spirit) with the final cause.[31] Finally, it should be pointed out that John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308), in his De primo principio, also defines God as the efficient cause, eminent (formal ?) cause, and the final cause.[32]

What was the direct or indirect source of this idea ? It is still difficult to believe that its diffusion in Europe after c. 1100 might have been the consequence of the diffusion of a Latin translation of Nicolaus’ work — after all, no positive trace of the existence of such translation has been found. And we must keep in mind that Nicolaus, being more of a summarizer in philosophy than a theologian himself, is unlikely to be more than a secondary source for this intriguing and peculiar version of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Aristotelian terms. The question thus remains open.

Parties annexes