Two weeks ago, in one of my Sunday musings, I posted some reflections bearing on some of the implications of a tripartite distinction the great Medieval thinker St. Anselm made. This was what we'd call an "ontological" or "metaphysical" distinction, meaning that it has to do with the being or reality of things. The distinction bore on the modes of being or reality of a thing, the way a thing is or exists.
There is the thing as it actually is, in itself, real, existing. And then there is how it is in our mind, in our knowledge, or imagination, or memory of the thing, even in our language, perhaps even in a painting of it. The thing does exist this way, but with a lesser degree of reality or being than the thing as it is in itself. Then there is the thing as it is in God's mind, in God's knowledge of it, which like every other genuine divine attribute for Anselm (e.g. God's goodness, His eternity, His justice) is in fact what God is, entirely so (so God is His justice, eternity, knowledge).
Three things to say about this. First, it might be helpful to think of an example. Second, this whole perspective, which may seem very strange and counter-intuitive, is a perfectly respectable philosophical stance which we call Platonism or neo-Platonism, and Anselm does definitely fit that label. Third, from that perspective, there is a hierarchy of degrees of being, and for a Christian (or for that matter Jewish or Islamic) neo-Platonist, from low to high it goes like this: how a thing is in our minds, an image; how a thing is in itself, as it exists; and how a thing (most truly, most genuinely) is in God's mind.
Let's take an example: there's a vase. It is made of marble. It came into being, say, 500 years ago, formed by the hand of a craftsman. It is real. You touch it, hold it in your hands, feel the coolness and smoothness, run your eyes over it. Now, imagine it. What's in your mind? That same vase, or rather an image of it. An image which has less reality, less truth than the actual thing itself of which it is a more or less faithful copy. That has a lower degree of being. And, then there is the vase as it is in God's mind, existing in there with all of the rest of the world, eternally.
So, in order of less real, less true to most real, most true: the vase as it exists in our mind, in our knowledge; the vase as it exists in itself, a real thing; the vase as it exists in God's mind. From this Christian Platonic metaphysical perspective, it's not that God simply has better, fuller, more penetrating knowledge than we do of the object, the object as it exists in itself, a created thing in the world. God's knowledge or thought or imagination (which all, again, are ultimately the same thing) contains the archetype of which even the things in this world, things we we consider to be entirely real, to possess the perfect plenitude of being, to be entirely what they are -- God's mind contains the archetypes of which real things of the world are just so many copies, real, existing copies, which might last a millennium, are fearfully and wonderfully made, are good in so many ways, but remain yet just copies.
This gets much more interesting when we think of this not in terms of non-sentient objects like vases, nor even in terms of sentient things like animals, but instead in terms of rational beings, persons. For, if Anselm's doctrine in its implications is true, this distinction would apply to us too, wouldn't it?
There is a Gregory Sadler -- indeed many Gregory Sadlers existing as images of this Gregory Sadler who is sitting at the laptop in his bedroom on a Sunday night -- in the mind of another person (or even in my own mind -- that is also, Anselm is very clear about this in Monologion, an image. Some of these Gregory Sadlers are truer images than others, but they are all ontologically lower than the actual existing Gregory Sadler who I am.
-- (as a digression, Anselm actually thinks that these images can have a considerable degree of reality, and that since they are ontologically linked to the person of whom they are images, we can (in a more than metaphorical way) not only love but have a relationship with a person through their image. I presented a paper exploring precisely this topic a year and a half ago at a Neo-Platonism conference, which should be coming out in the journal Quaestiones Disputatae fairly shortly) --
I am the Gregory Sadler who exists, who has been around for 40 years (actually 41, if you count my existence once I was conceived, since my birthday was about 3 months back), who has a certain history, certain qualities, and most importantly from an Anselmian perspective, who is, by virtue of being a rational being, of being at that grade in the scale of being (for another paper discussing this conception, check out this one), possessed of more being than any vase, rock, even horse. I am a person, possessing not only a (free) will, but also reason, self-consciousness, even made in the image of the creative triune God. So, ontologically speaking, that's pretty major stuff, right?
Well, yes, but, there''s also a Gregory Sadler who exists in the mind of God, eternally. And that Gregory Sadler has more being than I do. He is more real, more truely what Gregory Sadler is than I myself am. That's a very strange thought to formulate, and then to dwell on, isn't it? There's another me out there, one whom I'm not conscious of when I'm self-conscious (or am I dimly? Following that thread will wait until the next installation of this discussion).
And it's not a me along the lines of a science fiction scenario, a clone who somehow is almost identical to me but subtly different. No, such a clone would be on the same degree of being as me. We would both be real things in the world. Here we're talking about a person who is in some way (this is hard to -- but well worth the labor to -- imagine) more of a person than I am, and who is me. And that person exists in God's mind, in God's knowledge of the created work, and indeed God's very knowledge of me. That Gregory Sadler is not a copy created in God's mind, perhaps updated when I act or undergo some change, added to or subtracted from. That Gregory Sadler exists eternally with God, in God, indeed as Anselm says is part of what God is.
This does take some explaining, I'll admit, and I don't intend to attempt that here, tonight, even though I have been thinking about this idea for several years and I do think it can be adequately unpacked through explanation. Instead, I'll just throw out three parting considerations:
First, it is quite possible from an Anselmian perspective for the image and the imaged to coalesce and coincide, distinguishable but not separate from each other. The human rational mind is an example of this, grasping itself, its own nature, and even its very own patterning after the divinity through an image of itself. So, it could be that in some way the person existing in him- or herself and the person existing in God's mind overlap or coalesce in that way.
Second, persons are made by their interactions with others, and those other people do act on us. But we are also self-making, self-directing, self-forming, for better or for worse. If there is a person in God's mind who is me but more real than me, could it not be that my most fundamental life task is actually to make that approximation between those two persons a closer one, to make myself into what God has in mind for me? And, if there is this ontological distance between us, between me and me, is that not to some degree a product of my own poor decisions, my own wayward will and the consequences volition brings?
Third, God is every one one of God's attributes. So, God is justice, goodness, being, truth. . . . and God is also love, wholly love, the Love from which all other love in whatever roundabout metaphysical manner derives. This is something worth dwelling on in relations to questions of knowledge and metaphysics. God knows me from all eternity through myself in His mind. Does he also thereby in that very same act love me, from all eternity? I cannot see how from an Anselmian perspective, one could answer No.