I’m still slowly making my way through the Confessiones as my Latin reading text, usually at the pace of one little section a day (2-3 pages). I don’t think this gives me any special insight into the text; in fact, I’m sure that what I’m about to say is pretty obvious.

It strikes me that the category of substance is really central to Augustine’s inner struggle in the Confessiones — at times it seems like the only thing that is keeping him from becoming a Christian is his inability to get at what kind of “substance” God is. It is very difficult for me to get inside this kind of mindset. My spontaneous attitude toward the idea of substance is that there just isn’t anything there — the “substance” is nothing but the accidents regarded as an assemblage.

Thus, even though I know that this isn’t what the Schoolmen thought they were saying, I can’t get past the view that transubstantiation means that, at bottom, we call the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ and treat it as such. That’s why it makes sense for “Hoc est enim corpus meum” to be the “trigger,” rather than the epiclesis — the priest is saying that from this point forward, as long as the elements survive qua bread and wine, we are going to designate and treat them as the body and blood of Christ (hence the care with which they are handled, stored, etc.).

This mental block is doubtless due to some fault in my education up to this point — I probably need to take a decade or so and immerse myself in Aristotle. (A sidenote: one of my favorite passages in the Confessiones is when Augustine says that he can see absolutely no benefit in reading Aristotle’s “Categories.”) In any case, when I was in Marion’s class on the De Trinitate, he placed a very heavy emphasis on the concept of substance and encouraged people to write papers about it — now I understand better why he had that emphasis, since he was implicitly reading the De Trinitate through the lens of the Confessiones.

Yet another moment when I curse my parents’ lack of foresight in not giving me a proper classical education!

18 thoughts on “Substance

  1. The only thing separating the pagans from Christianity were their substances. Lucretius in book I, for instance, where natural kinds limit God’s will. Or John Philoponus, who conducted Galileo’s thought experiment 1000 years before Galileo, arguing for the existence of the truly paradoxical substance of space, which all the pagans scoffed at.

  2. I share some of this confusion, but I think there’s a fairly easy rejoinder to that understanding of transubstantiation — the Catholic can go on to say that if he ceased to so treat the bread and wine, then he would be in error, as would anyone who failed to treat the bread and wine (from that point on) as the body & blood of Christ. I suspect something similar is going on in essence/accident distinctions; accidents aren’t really a property of whatever they’re “adhering” in, but merely seem to be properties of that thing. “Accidents” as such are illusions.

    I take Augustine’s ponderings over “what sort of substance God is” to be, then, the attempt to think true things about God rather than false things. He starts off thinking of God as a very large blob of light, and he’s convinced that this isn’t right. So the “what substance?” issue is, If God’s not a very large blob of light, then what is he? And the “accidents regarded as an assemblage” response isn’t really available to him, since the “accidents” he has to cobble together (miracles, an Incarnate God, “religious experiences” etc.) are all taken to hint at something “off-stage” (there’s a burning bush and a voice coming from it, but God isn’t taken to be either the bush or the voice, but something “hidden” behind them who semi-reveals himself there; the same goes for all miracles), and this wondering about the happenings “off-stage” is what lead Augustine to posit a giant blob of light in the first place. If he assembled the “accidents” together he’d just have a lot of things gathered together saying “We ain’t what you are looking for!”

  3. Iirc, in ‘What is Called Thinking’, Heidegger recommends fifteen years of intensive Aristotle study (and that’s just so you’ll be ready for Nietzsche). If you’re settling for ten, I mean, you might as well just read the Cliff’s Notes.

  4. Daniel, The response that someone would be incorrect to say the bread and wine ceased to be the Body and Blood of Christ does not fall outside of my explanation — obviously part of designating and treating the elements as the body of Christ would be to continue saying that they’re the body of Christ.

    Indeed, one could say that liturgical practices in part evolved to make sure that consecrated hosts stayed within the liturgical context at all times (reservation of hosts, veneration, etc.) so that ambiguity as to their status would never arise. Thus they remain the body of Christ from the moment of consecration until their consumption, and until the time of consumption, they are kept in a “holy” setting. Ambiguity might arise if they didn’t reserve the leftovers — if they gave them to a poor family in the church or spread them out for the birds — but they don’t do that.

    As for the “accidents” of God, God is a special case insofar as he doesn’t “have” properties but immediately is his love, goodness, justice, etc.

  5. Iirc, in ‘What is Called Thinking’, Heidegger recommends fifteen years of intensive Aristotle study (and that’s just so you’ll be ready for Nietzsche). If you’re settling for ten, I mean, you might as well just read the Cliff’s Notes.

    That’s still less onerous than what you need as preparation to read the Zohar.

  6. Isn’t the category of “substance” really just a way of speaking about the fact that things display continuity even though they change? I recognize that the category itself presuppose a degree of presence that we cannot affirm any longer, but how is it any different, in principal, from Whitehead’s actual occasions? Despite whatever we might think, it seems clear to me that if we ever encountered a talking cow, for example, we would say that it had “an intellectual substance,” would we not?

  7. I agree that “substance” refers to the fact that things display continuity &c. I guess where I’m stumbling is the idea that there are different kinds of substance, that substance can come “preinstalled” with certain properties. It just seems to me to be incoherent based on the very notion itself. Maybe this is based on my mental block of not being able to see some kind of “stuff,” but rather viewing “substance” as a placeholder word — if there really were some underlying substance qua present stuff, maybe it would make sense for there to be different kinds that are “hard wired” for certain properties.

    I don’t know if I would call a talking cow an “intellectual substance,” so much as just call it “intelligent.”

  8. I agree about the “stuff” hangup. I think that is mostly what everybody that used the term was most likely thinking of too. And, I am certain it is what people who reject a substance ontology are rejecting as well. But, it does seem to me that the idea can be “demythologized,” and when it is it doesn’t seem to me to be anything different than what others are putting in its place, except of course for the assumption of presence.

    Basically, I just think that the term is a category for capturing “what it is.” Like you said, the answer for the talking cow’s “what is it” is “intelligent.” That’s at least how I think about it.

  9. I think the Latin for that is “quod est.” Correct me if I am wrong. I’m going off of a vague memory here of something in Aquinas.

  10. There’s “quod” and “quid” — one of them is “what” and the other is “that” (the very facticity of the thing!!!!). My Latin sucks too much for me to make such fine distinctions.

  11. Quid = what.

    Quod = that.

    I only really know the distinction because of the term “quiddity,” which I for some reason used at least twice in my thesis.

  12. In other news, today it occurred to me that it is taking me longer to read the Confessions than it took Augustine to experience the events it recounts.

  13. My spontaneous attitude toward the idea of substance is that there just isn’t anything there

    This feels pretty close to where Augustine ends up; I just wrote a short essay on the Confessions (among other texts) where I argued that Augustine’s version of texts and selves is that they are empty.

    Also, this valuable resignation to emptiness seems in keeping with Augustine’s excessive practice of asking questions of God, a practice which (as he waits in vain for substantive answers) actually keeps him from faith.

Comments are closed.