Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Theological History of Infinity

"Infinity" by Joe MacGown

A. The Agony of Ancient Infinities

The ancient Greeks elevated finite proportions above this primeval chaos in their founding Chaoskamf of Olympian gods and chthonic titans to initiate a gradual emancipation of the proportionate finitude of Greek humanity from the vast universality of Asian animality.[1] Anaximander first theoretically envisioned this cosmogony of finitude when he described the primordial chaos as not only an unlimited (apeiron) flux, but also as an inexhaustible reserve of generation and destruction; the “the first principle of existing things is the unlimited”, “eternal and ageless”; “deathless and indestructible.”[2] The Pythagoreans were, however, the first to fold the appearances into ‘arithmological’ limit-forms by distinguishing the limited quantitative forms (peras) from unlimited qualitative content (apeiron).[3] Each of the limit forms was, not merely a token of some natural number, but a structural partition of the cosmos originating from the eidetic light of its central hearth.[4] The very possibility of knowledge by counting was thus insuperably rooted in the finite structure of any countable content.[5] Parmenides made this ontological ground explicit by conjoining the possibility of thought and being into one eternal and immutable onto-noetic sphere. He writes: “For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.”[6] By conjoining the form of limit to the ground of being, the unlimited chaos of non-being was immediately cast into the nullifying void.[7] But since limited-being could only be conceived as the negative opposite of some unlimited-nonbeing, which could not be conceived at all, the unintelligibility of non-being also implied the unintelligibility of any and all limited-beings. After only the briefest flash of divine infinity, the titanic forces of the dark crept back from behind the doors of night.

Aristotle is ordinarily credited with introducing the first philosophical account of infinity. Yet it is rather Plato to whom we owe the first hint of an eidetic infinity in-and-beyond all predicated properties. Plato’s theory of universal Ideas (eide) re-cast all of the predicated properties that constituted Anaxagorean cosmic-mind (Nous) as intelligible but super-sensuous Pythagorean limit-forms, in which any and all predicates could signify a singular universal paradigm (e.g. largeness) that formally possesses an indefinite multiplicity of possible instances (e.g. large things).[8] It thus implied a two-fold eidetic infinity, in which infinitely many predicates could be positively combined to signify an equivalent infinity of perfect paradigms, and each perfect paradigm could be negatively divided, particularized, and instantiated in infinitely many properties.[9] Plato’s divine method of the Philebus has, however, often been interpreted as a method of stamping the limited paradigms of Ideas upon the unlimited manifold of phenomena to construct a medley of limit-unlimited mixtures.[10] These mixtures (mikton) of the limit (peras) and the unlimited (apeiron) have consequently been read to re-impress the firm mark of finitude that had previously been inscribed by the Pythagorean limit-forms.[11] Yet Plato conspicuously declines to make these mixtures into merely another finite limit-unlimited compound for the simple reason that the very effort to completely circumscribe the unlimited in the limit would also inadvertently allow the unlimited to escape at the very moment of its capture, because the unlimited would be mis-identified as merely another limit-form, and could thus never be genuinely circumscribed within any limit.[12] Hence, when Plato proceeds to explain the nature of the mixture, he suddenly turns to describe it in more spirited terms as a “progeny” and a “coming-into being”, which is made by the “king of heaven and earth.”[13]

Plato’s students applied his eidetic infinite to resolve previously unsolved problems in arithmetic and geometry. For example, Plato playfully alludes to Theaetetus’ discovery of infinite continued fractions (e.g. 1/√2) that had been rejected by the Pythagoreans.[14] His student Eudoxus further devised a method of exhaustion that even anticipated infinitesimal calculus by circumscribing polygons with increasing sides inside and outside a circle, and dividing the area of the polygon with the square of the circle’s radius to produce evermore exact approximations of pi (π). Archimedes later applied this method of exhaustion to calculate the area of parabolas, ellipses, cylinders and spheres.[15] Leucippus and Democritus then applied a negative rendition of Plato’s eidetic infinite to infinitesimally divide every conceivable substance into aggregates of homogenous atoms: where Plato had united infinitely many but identical predicates into one perfect paradigm (e.g. largeness), the Atomists divided any one individual whole substance into infinitely many atomic parts.[16] But by infinitesimally dividing all beings, the Atomists not only recapitulated Parmenides’ paradox of limit-beings opposed to unlimited-nonbeing in every atom, but also introduced a new mereological paradox: for since each and all particularly delimited atoms can only be conceived once they have been divided; and the gap of division is an instance of the void of non-being between atoms; the unintelligibility of non-being intrudes into and dissolves all atoms. And since no part can be conceived that is not either divided from or combined into a whole, the elimination of genuine composition of parts into wholes inadvertently eliminates any genuine part. Therefore once the Atomists had rejected Platonic participation and infinitesimally divided every limit-form, any genuine composition of parts-into-wholes became impossible simply because every putative composite ‘whole’ amounted to nothing more than the adventitious aggregation of some further divisible parts.[17]

Once the Atomists had separated qualities from quantities, and made Plato’s eidetic infinity of predicated qualities into a strictly quantitative and infinitesimal division, Aristotle could reject both infinity and infinitesimal division for the “many contradictions [that] result whether we suppose it to exist or not to exist.”[18] Any conception of the infinite thus seems negatively opposed to the finite, as the non-finite that universally exceeds the finite, just as any conception of the finite seems negatively opposed to the infinite, as some partition within the infinite. Yet if the infinite could genuinely exceed the finite, then it would also escape from its negative opposition to the finite, so that it would no longer negatively oppose so as to exceed the finite. Hence as soon as the infinite exceeds the finite, it paradoxically becomes no longer infinite. Against both Plato’s infinite principle of the World-Soul and the Atomists infinitesimal divisibility of atoms, Aristotle thus argued that any quantitative conception of the infinite must produce paradoxes, in which the infinite is distinguished from, opposed to, and limited by the finite. He wrote: “Everything is either a source or derived from a source. But there cannot be a source of the infinite or limitless, for that would be a limit of it... [Thus] there is no principle of this, but it is this which is held to be the principle of other things.”[19] To preserve the stable mixture of substances together with the infinite divisibility of mathematics, he instead distinguished actual from potential infinity: actual infinity is the totality of an interminable series of finite quantities; while potential infinity is the possibility of a continuous numerical series.[20] He affirmed the possibility of counting a potentially infinite sequence of magnitudes (e.g. 1, 2, 3,…, ∞), but rejected the hypostatization of mathematical infinity as anything actual.

After Aristotle’s criticisms the positive principle of actual infinity was re-introduced by Speucippus in the extreme transcendence of the One, and by Xenocrates as an emanation of the World-Soul from the One and the Dyad. Already in the Republic, Plato had hinted that the supreme Idea of the Good “is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.”[21] In the first hypothesis of the Parmenides, he had also quietly hinted at divine infinity when he described the One as neither whole nor with parts; with no beginning or end; and without shape or limits.[22] Iamblichus likewise reports that Speucippus, the second scholararch of the Platonic Academy, had accepted Plato’s Pythagorean principles of One and the Dyad but, by overly accentuating its positive transcendence, had inadvertently severed their causal reciprocity. He argued for a radical separation of the paradigmatic cause from its instantial effects when he wrote: “what is itself the cause of some quality in other things cannot have that quality in the same way.”[23] This extreme transcendence produced a radically disconnected ontology in which the One could be serially reproduced at innumerable eidetic levels, just as surely as atoms had been negatively divided and multiplied in a kind of eidetic atomism that anticipated Liebniz’s monadology.[24] Yet Xenocrates, the third scholararch of the Platonic Academy, further extended Plato’s eidetic infinity to the second principle of the indefinite Dyad in a triadic model of supreme principles, which clearly anticipated, not only the pagan triads of Numenius and Plotinus, but also the later Patristic formulation of the Trinity.[25] He thus initiated the gradual transformation of Plato’s four-tier ontology into a cascading series of nested triads, in which the supreme principle of the One intellectually comprehends and actively generates the indefinite Dyad, which are altogether sexually conjoined to produce the Mixture of the World-Soul.[26] Once he had re-conceived the One as the positive and generative intellect, and the Dyad as the negative and effusive fountain of unlimited emanation, then each of the essential ingredients had been prepared for Plotinus to radicalize Plato’s eidetic infinity as a pure infinity beyond being that only becomes intelligible through its negatively diffusive emanation.

Although God is nowhere explicitly described as ‘infinite’ in the Jewish scriptures, numerous attributions of ‘eternity’ have contributed to casting a halo of transcendence and infinity around the Godhead.[27] Philo of Alexandria seized upon this fortuitous alignment to re-interpret the Timaeus as a cosmogony of divine creation in which Plato “affirms that the Creator of the gods is also the father and creator and maker of everything.”[28] He similarly described the passage in which “God breathed into his face the breath of life” as an allegory of the emanation of the spirit of God into the natural cosmos and human soul.[29] Consequently, there should be little surprise that he would also incorporate the Middle Platonist notion of infinite emanation. Henri Guyot has admitted that Philo did not, in fact, use the word ‘infinite’ (apeiron) to describe God, but nonetheless argued that Philo may have been the first to attribute infinity to God.[30] Since divine transcendence implies that no determinate, limited, and creaturely qualities can be adequately attributed to God, Philo must have conceived of God as indeterminate, unlimited, and ipso facto infinite.[31] Philo’s characterization of the true “God of all gods” as “transcending all visible essence”, “invisible Being”, and “appreciated by the mind alone” may have thus echoed a shared Middle Platonist belief in an intellectual intuition of the transcendent principle of the One.[32]

Socrates similarly gestured towards the supreme Idea of the Good that transcends, not only all particular good things, but even all other universal Ideas.[33] By transcending all particular finite beings the Good was rendered infinite, but by transcending each universal Idea it also re-entered into the finite. This awesome entrance of an infinite power into the finite world is highlighted in Dionysius Longinus’ treatise, On the Sublime (Peri Hypsous), in which the aesthetic of the sublime is first described as an “irresistible force” that “illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time.”[34] Longinus adoringly characterizes Plato as a ‘demi-god of literature’ and the ‘supreme master of style’, and repeatedly characterizes the sublime, in terms reminiscent of Plato’s eidetic infinite, as the majesty of nature that exceeds the limits of human perception.[35] And his singular reference to Jewish scripture, in which God said “let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3), also recalls Philo’s allegorical re-interpretation of Genesis as a philosophic cosmogony.

The pure nova of negative infinity finally burst forth, like the all-comprehending Oculus of the Roman Pantheon, from the Enneads of Plotinus. There the One is no longer represented as merely the extreme transcendent cause of Speucippus, nor the active intellect of Xenocrates, nor even the indeterminate creator of Philo, but rather as the infinite and plenitudinous fountain of all intelligible beings. Aristotle had rejected actual infinity for the paradoxes resulting from the infinite related in opposition to the finite, but Plotinus sought to escape from the site of these paradoxes into the totally transcendent One, beyond the finite and the infinite alike. He writes: “[I]ts Being is not limited… Nor, on the other hand, is it infinite in the sense of magnitude… All its infinitude resides in its power…. Absolutely One, it has never known measure and stands outside of number… And having no constituent parts it accepts no pattern, forms no shape.”[36] The infinite power of the One is, thus, neither a quantitative, nor numerical, nor an extended infinity, but rather an infinite reserve of potential power from which every composition of quality and quantity ceaselessly flow. And since even mathematical quantities must emanate from this singular source, Plotinus may also assimilate Aristotle’s potential infinity into the One. But because the One is placed in an extreme transcendence beyond being, and every being was suspended from what is not-being, it enters the scene as a negative infinity that threatens to dissolve all particular beings.[37] Plotinus’ celebrated mystagogical ascent to the One is, consequently, an agonistic approach towards an asymptotic null-point that annihilates the particularity of all positive beings.[38] 

The intractable opposition of Plotinus’ pure and negative infinity to all finite and particular being could only be resolved in and through the mysterious union of the infinite in the finite and the finite in the infinite, in which the negative infinity of the indeterminate but all-creative one was positively represented in an individual. Such an individual union required the Church fathers to reject any superficial identification of the Platonic One with the Jewish God in a Gnostic drama sacrifice and atonement.[39] If God could become a man, then the One cannot plausibly remain infinitely removed from the finite world, but must also transcend its very transcendence to become positively manifest to the finite. At this singular moment, the sublime aesthetic of infinity was made fully present within the proportions of the beautiful.[40] Once, however, the indeterminate infinitude of God was re-finitized in man, it also seemed inadmissible to render God as immaterial, unlimited, and infinite. Consequently, the double-transcendence of God in Christ suggested to Tertullian that the Christian God should be cast in a kind of Stoic mould as the finest of finite matter.[41] Origin argued, on a similar basis, that since “whatever is infinite will also be incomprehensible” so “number will be correctly applied to rational creatures or understandings.”[42] And on the rare occasion that Augustine speaks of infinity, he also echoes this Platonic tradition, but attributes to God perfect knowledge of infinitely many numbers in a potentially infinite sequence, like the naves of the Latin Basilica, processing towards a semi-circular altar that opens its all-comprehending circumference upon the congregation just as God humbled himself to enter the world.[43]

The apogee of ancient agony over the question of divine infinity thus arose during the Arian controversy concerning whether Christ, who had been begotten by God, could be recognized as equally divine, and ipso facto, equally infinite with God the Father. Arius and his supporters argued that since Christ was begotten he must also have begun to exist at some previous time, before which he had not existed.[44] The resulting diminution of the divine infinity of Christ thus combined elements of both Tertullian’s re-finitized infinite and Plotinus’ negative infinity: for Christ’s beginning portrayed the Son as temporally limited like the finitized infinite of Tertullian’s materially bounded God; while the God without a beginning portrayed the Father as the pure supra-temporal power of Plotinean infinity. And since Christ’s finitinitized infinitude was distinct and subordinate to God’s pure infinitude, Arian also suggested, like Speucippus, an extreme transcendence of disconnected superior and subordinate principles. Worst of all, once the infinite power of God had been disconnected from the only begotten Son, Arius had also unwittingly diminished God: for once the finitized infinitude of Christ was subordinated to the infinitude of God, then the divine infinity of God excluded the finitized infinity of Christ; but since exclusion may only result from finitude, Arian’s subordinationist theology also implied that, not only Christ, but even God the Father must be bounded in a kind of finitized infinity. Athanasius loudly protested against these implications, and championed the orthodox doctrine that Christ could never be subordinated, even as a finitized mediating principle between God and man, without also abandoning his co-equal divine infinity, the very possibility of substitutionary atonement, and the central doctrines of the Christian faith.[45]

Gregory of Nyssa has been honoured as the first to attribute a positive conception of infinity to God for the purpose of refuting the subordinationist implications of Arianism.[46] In response to Eunomius, Gregory wrote: “the Divine Nature is without extension, and, being without extension, it has no limit; and that which is limitless is infinite.”[47] God is thus no longer described as ‘not finite’, in the merely negative terms of Philo’s indeterminate infinity. The divinity of Christ rather implies a distinct second person who, after Tertullian, is united in one God. But where Plotinus’ pure infinity had produced an infinite negativity that dissolved all particular beings, Gregory’s Trinitarian theology preserves finitude in a positive infinity by incorporating the finitude of Jesus’ humanity into the intra-Trinitarian procession of the divine essence. Where Tertullian, like Philo, rendered each person finite, Gregory recognized, in response to the Arian heresy, that the full divinity of Christ could only be maintained if each person were distinct yet fully infinite. Hence, God is consequently rendered so effusively infinite in goodness, power, and love as to beget a second divine person, which is related back from the second to the first by a third person.

The Christological controversies are generally regarded as purely doctrinal disputes in the formative years of Christian theology. But once it is recognized all of the classical formulation of divine transcendence may have been shaped by the Platonic eidetic infinity, then it becomes possible to re-read these controversies on the nature of Christ as conflicts that were, in many respects, centred upon the nature of infinity: for Philo God was indeterminately infinite; for Plotinus, the One was a pure negative infinity; but for Gregory, God must be attributed a positive infinity precisely because of the positive incarnation of divine infinity in the human finitude of Christ. Since, moreover, any notion of infinity that exceeds and evacuates finitude produces paradoxes, it is possible to argue that it is only the Christian Trinity which preserves the finite in the infinite and the infinite in the finite; which pacifies its ancient agony; and which plumbs the idea of infinity to its inmost depths. In the Trinity alone may each distinct person be distinguished, and, from this ‘second difference’ between the divine persons, it may likewise exceed but remain interrelated by an analogous relation to a third.[48] Gregory’s divine infinity may thus integrate all of the differences of the divine persons precisely because it transcends and intermediates each of their distinctions in the Trinitarian economy of differences within the identity of the divine essence. And since its infinity is shared between the divine persons in the Trinity, it may also succeed in realizing the hints of the positive and negative double-transcendence of Plato, in a triune infinity that had only been dimly anticipated but placed beyond the world in Xenocrates’ triad of supreme principles. This Trinitarian infinity was modelled into the classical Greek Basilica, in which many semi-circular domes surround one sovereign dome, which often depicts Christ Pantocrator as the solemn judge of humanity in the towering majesty of his divine infinity.

B. The Medieval Dispute Over Divine Infinity

Pseudo-Dionysius of Areopagite made Gregory of Nyssa’s divine infinity into the paradoxical pillar of theology, in which God is both dizzyingly absent and dazzlingly present. He characterized God as unutterable, ineffable; beyond Mind, beyond Life, beyond Being” and who “transcends all the opposition between the Finite and the Infinite” [49]; as “boundless” and “infinitely powerful” [50]; and whose greatness is “Irrepressible, Infinite, Unlimited, and, while comprehending all things, is Itself Incomprehensible.”[51] But where, for Gregory, divine infinity had acted as a foil for the finitized infinity of Arian subordinationism, Pseudo-Dionysius described it, in terms more reminiscent of the Pythagorean limit-forms, as “the Form producing Form in the formless, as a Fount of every form; and it is Formless in the Forms, as being beyond all form.”[52] He also insisted that this divine infinity is the supra-numerical fountain of the numerical unity in creatures, since God “exceed[s] all Number, penetrating beyond all Infinity.”[53] For Pseudo-Dionysius the effusive power of divine infinity may act to numerically unite all finite creatures from a super-celestial height beyond ever difference, and even the contradictory mysteries of faith.[54] The truest knowledge of theology may thus only be conferred by his singular “spiritual light”, which illuminates every mind by “renewing all their spiritual powers.”[55] This spiritual illumination of the contradictory mysteries of faith became the signature of the Gothic aesthetic of divine infinity. Thus when Abbot Suger of St. Denis began to rebuild Saint-Denis as the first Gothic church, he had this verse by its pseudonymous patron inscribed on the doors: “The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work/ Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through/ the lights/ To the true light, where Christ is the true door.”[56]

Once divine infinity had been elevated to a spiritual clerestory to shine its light upon every definite proposition, early medieval theologians largely followed Augustine in maintaining totally silent on the subject. [57] Yet Augustine’s spirit could not rest quietly until it too had reached these divine heights. Anselm of Canterbury, who had imparted so much impetus to the beginning of Latin Scholasticism, had all-but named divine infinity when he characterized God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.”[58] This background Dionysian belief is also evident in the fourth of the Five Ways for proving the existence of God, in which Thomas Aquinas describes how a gradation of goodness in beings always presupposes an utmost paradigm of goodness.[59] He argues that divine simplicity entails divine infinity because what is simple is not finitely bounded or partitioned.[60] And he clearly reaffirms an infinite divine power when he answers that God “himself, his essence, his wisdom, his power, his goodness are all without limit, wherefore in him all is infinite.”[61] But against Anselm’s ontological argument, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s caution and rejected the possibility that finite creaturely intellects could know actual infinities.[62] He argues that since any idea of number must be abstracted from counting many things, and it is impossible to count an infinite multitude, then “no set of things can actually be inherently unlimited, nor can it happen to be unlimited.”[63] Hence, Aquinas attributed infinity to the divine essence, but denied that it could be known by any created intellect. Yet once Aquinas rejected the possibility of creaturely knowledge of infinity, he may also have inadvertently suggested that even his own attribution of divine infinity could not be truly known. This unwieldy combination of Dionysian divine infinity and Aristotelian potential infinity thus created a crack in the shell of Thomistic theology from which the new virtual infinity could be borne.

The Franciscan Order heralded this new notion of infinity for the purpose of emulating the infinite charity of Christ by exceeding every finite limit. Their anarchic impetus to re-enact the more authentic faith, poverty, and charity of the apostles beyond every institutional limit set by the diocese and the monastery compelled them to search for some intelligible sign of infinity. St. Bonaventure first charted this course when he described how Being itself “is most highly one and yet all inclusive”, “last because it is first”, the “greatest in power” and closest “to the infinite.”[64] Henry of Ghent further argued that even Aristotle’s potential infinite may signify the positive and pure act of divine infinity.[65] He rejected Avicenna’s view that the essences of things must exist simply because they are eternally apprehended by the divine intellect, and re-interpreted existence as a relation of any possible essence to the cause of divine creation. Once existence had been folded back into the causal interrelations of essence, Henry could render the enumeration of a potential infinity of existents as a sign of actual infinity in the divine essence. But since even this signification must be recognized as an intellective being, Henry’s sign of infinity inadvertently reintroduced the sign of potential-to-actual infinity as an infinite signifier on the representational and semantic plane of knowledge. Yet where Plotinus’ pure infinity had been hung like a super-celestial star beyond the firmament of all Being, Henry’s infinite signifier rested instead in a virtual matrix of possible knowledge. By thus rendering Aristotle’s potentially infinite enumeration into the sign of infinity, Henry of Ghent began to conversely represent divine infinity as little more than that which can be signified by a virtual infinity.

John Duns Scotus completed this Franciscan virtualization of divine infinity by inverting the Aristotelian-Thomistic ascent from creatures to God into a pure Plotinean descent from virtually signified divine infinity to every finite determination.[66] Where Aquinas had proceeded from divine simplicity to divine infinity, Scotus reversed this procedure to argue from virtual infinity to divine simplicity.[67] He contended, against Aquinas, that it was spurious to infer from Boethius’ principle of individuation that “not being limited by matter entails being infinite.”[68] The consistently Aristotelian consequence of any negation of the material, the limited, and the finite should rather be nothing more than a potential infinity of finite enumerations, which might only be elevated to the heights of divine infinity if divine infinity had already been implicitly presupposed. Thus Scotus makes this hidden presupposition explicit when he invokes Plotinus’ pure infinity to represent God as an “infinite power” of “infinite motion.”[69] But because all knowledge of infinity is meant to be derived from Henry of Ghent’s signification of a potential infinity, and any potential infinity is little more than a quantitative enumeration, Scotus must also transform divine infinity into an infinitely extended quantity. He writes: “We might imagine that all the parts… remained in existence simultaneously. If this could be done we would have an infinite quantity, because it would be as great in actuality as it was potentially.”[70] Every finite partition of this quantitatively extended virtual infinity then becomes yet another virtual representation within a thoroughly semanticized ontology, which can be viewed in the structurally superfluous decorations on the flattened screens of late Gothic Rayonnant facades.[71]

Nicholas of Cusa may have been the first medieval thinker to enter and exceed this Franciscan virtualization of divine infinity by suspending every quantitatively extended and virtual infinity from the singular union of quality and quantity in the divine infinity of Christ in the Trinity. He followed Duns Scotus in re-imagining divine infinity as an extended virtual space, but followed Pseudo-Dionysius in radically re-affirming the indivisibility of the Godhead beyond all contradictions in a way that challenged its virtual representability with a series of aesthetic paradoxes. For example, a century before Copernicus he famously advanced the opinion that since, in an infinite sphere every point is equidistant from the periphery, the centre must be located everywhere and nowhere, and every point both is and is not located in the centre of the universe.[72] Aristotle had anticipated these paradoxes but rejected any actually infinite extension in space. Yet after Duns Scotus had virtually represented Plotinian infinity in a quantitatively extended space, Nicholas of Cusa returned to Plato and accepted these paradoxes as ineliminable fixtures of the imaginative intellect, that were suspended from an analogical source of spiritual light.[73] He believed this doctrine to have been mystically revealed to him on a return voyage from Constantinople, but it may also have been shaped by the influence of Dionysian Neo-Platonism emanating from Chartres.[74] Once the quantitative multiplicity had been represented as a virtual infinity, Nicholas of Cusa could similarly invoke this current of Dionysian Platonism to suspend every aesthetic paradox from the central paradox of Christ in the Trinity.[75] By constructing a complex aesthetic topography of paradoxical spaces that converged upon the theological centre of Christ, Nicholas of Cusa could represent an inconsistent plurality of perspectives converging towards the kind of mystagogical infinity that is displayed in Northern Renaissance triptychs, such as Van Eyk’s Ghent Alterpiece.[76]

C. The Sublime Aesthetic of the Modern Virtual Infinity

The modern notion of infinity developed from the further partitioning, separation, and enfolding of the late Franciscan virtual infinity in the conceptual void that had been broken open by its fall from the divine infinity. William of Ockham dropped the axe that finally severed the virtual from the divine infinity when, contrary to Duns Scotus, he added a further distinction to Henry of Ghent’s signification of divine infinity: where Ghent had made potential infinity a sign of actual infinity, Ockham recommended that it should, more modestly, be understood as merely a sign of some further but merely metaphorical potential infinity.[77] And he further argued that even if God were signified by some potential infinity, then God would not be perfect (ens eminentissimum) because, for any degree of perfection a potential infinity may always produce some greater degree of perfection. Ockham thus concluded that, since God is maximally perfect, God could not be signified by any potential infinity, which could only signify an iterative enumeration of imperfectly finite things.[78] The Godhead was thus decapitated from any place beyond the Franciscan virtual infinity. And once this virtual infinity was made to signify nothing beyond itself, it became possible for it to be folded into a self-enclosed, a-theological, and secular infinity. This further finite enclosure of infinity had been previously foreshadowed by the successive stages in the abstract symbolization of natural numbers, geometry, and algebra.[79] But it was Ockham’s self-signifying virtual infinity that finally suggested, to Raymon Llull, Peter Ramus, and others, the project of constructing a completely virtual representation that might, in principle, replace all reality by exhaustively quantifying and calculating each and every part.[80]

Once the virtual infinity had been made into a totalizing virtual representation, modern physicists, like the ancient atomists, could begin to infinitesimally divide and chart the motion of each part within the whole. Giotto di Bondone, and Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi began to illustrate how it could be surveyed to draft the earliest linear perspective paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Galileo Galilei subsequently applied Eudoxus’ eidetic infinitesimal division of infinite continued fractions to calculate the movement of projectiles and falling bodies. He referred back to Nicholas of Cusa’s On Conjectures when he described the many paradoxes of infinity (e.g. Aristotle’s Wheel) that result in a coincidence of contrary quantifiable (quantum) and non-quantifiable (non-quantum) magnitudes.[81] The theoretical conditions for René Descartes’ coordinate system for charting geometric magnitudes had similarly emerged within the representational matrix created from amidst this late-Franciscan sundering of a virtually infinite realm of representation from the mysterious depths of divine infinity.[82] Once divine infinity had been transformed into a self-signifying virtual infinity, and all its physical movements had been exhaustively represented with no sign of divinity betwixt its infinite magnitudes, Blaise Pascal could bemoan the solemn terror of a sublime void that devours all finite understanding: “I feel engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me.”[83]

This early modern project of replacing reality with the virtual reality of a Mathesis Universalis was nearly carried to completion in the infinite physical cosmology of Isaac Newton and the infinitesimal monadology of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In response to Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, Newton transformed the bounded heliocentric universe into an unbounded Euclidean space. He wrote that space “extends infinitely in all directions” and time "is eternal in duration.”[84] By extending the dimensions of the Cartesian coordinate system across an immeasurable physical plane, he re-constructed a new Stoic cosmology, in which the finite material universe hangs vertiginously amidst an infinite void.[85] Leibniz likewise radicalized the infinitesimal intension of all composite substances into an actual infinity of atomic monads. His study of Galileo’s paradoxes of infinity had persuaded him that infinity could not be understood as either a sequence of whole numbers (numerus omnium unitatum), the number of all numbers (numerusn umerorumo mnium), but only as the greatest number (numerums maximus), which alone abided by the logical axiom that the whole is greater than its parts.[86] He wrote: “I believe that there is no part of matter which is not, I do not say divisible, but actually divided; and consequently the least particle ought to be considered as a world full of an infinity of different creatures.”[87] But Leibniz’ actual infinity of numerums maximus, like his highest being of ens realissimum, did not so much return to the Dionysian divine infinity as affect an infinitesimal division of the post-Cartesian virtual realm of representation. The influence of this virtualization of space, light, and motion may be seen in the punctuated rhythm of the innumerable ornaments, optical effects, and curvilinear spaces, that are celebrated in the great Baroque churches, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s St. Peter’s Basilica and Christopher Wren’s St. Paul Cathedral.[88]

The aesthetic of the sublime was borne at this time from the Pascalian dread of a lonely consciousness suspended between the Newtonian infinite cosmos and the Leibnizian infinitesimal monad. Plato and Aristotle never appear to have distinguished the sublime from the beautiful, which rather tends to be described in terms that prefigure Kant’s notion of the moral sublime.[89] And while Aquinas had elevated the beautiful to a transcendental attribute of the divine essence he found no reason to distinguish it from divine infinity.[90] The sublime instead emerges only after the uniquely modern sundering and supplanting of divine infinity by the virtual infinity, and its terrible aesthetic of all-enveloping but entirely empty spaces. Longinus’s treatise on the sublime effects of rhetoric was thus predictably re-introduced in the Baroque age by Nicolas Boileau to illustrate these dizzying heights reflected from an “absolutely unknowable void.”[91] But elite disillusionment with its suffocating artificiality prompted a Rococco return to the sublime aesthetic of virtual infinity in the varied simulations of nature, such as Marie Antoinette’s rustic retreat, le Hameau de la Reine à Versailles.[92] Edmund Burke thus distinguished the sublime, in contrast to the pleasure of the beautiful, as a terrific excitement of pain, danger, and death.[93] Immanuel Kant, likewise, initially described the sublime in these allegorical terms.[94] But in the in the Analytic of the Sublime, he transformed it into a pure judgment of the imagination when he describes how “sublimity is not contained in anything in nature, but only in our mind.[95]  This transformation of the aesthetic of the sublime into a pure judgment of virtual infinity transposed it from the realm of Newtonian-Leibnizian representation to an ever more rarified plateau of transcendental judgments. And since Cusa and Galileo had already shown that the virtual infinity had never been any less paradoxical than Aristotle’s actual infinity, Kant’s last great critique collapsed into a captivating but intractable morass of aesthetic paradoxes.[96]

Immanuel Kant’s critiques had seemed to destroy, together with every objectified proportion, any possibility of the mediation of the sublime within the beautiful. [97] But he had also inadvertently carved out a Dionysian door for a sublime escape from the virtual realm of representation beyond the limits of reason alone. The tightening knot of solipsistic systematicity, especially in the hands of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, prompted a new Romantic search for the sublime in some semblance of infinitude beyond the pure judgments of the imagination, into the irreducible spheres of feeling (Herder), morality (Schiller), and poetry (Schlegel). Johann Gottfried Herder quickly recognized that, for all its pretensions of finitistic sobriety, Kant’s “supersensible reason aiming at absolute totality” amounted to “an unbounded fantasy that steps into the infinite.”[98] Friedrich Schiller took one step further beyond its bounds when he recast the sublime as an irresistible vital power of sensuous infinite “before which those of ours vanish into nothing.”[99] Where the Kantian sublime had merely pointed to an infinite ideal, Schiller re-envisioned it as a captivating ‘genii’ that could tear the “independent spirit away from the net, wherewith the refined sensuousness ensnared him, and which binds so much the more tightly, the more transparently it is spun.”[100] Schiller’s moral rapture thus summoned the moral imagination beyond every net of virtual representation.[101] But it was Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel who first found the key for the re-divinization of the virtual in the poetics of the sublime when he wrote: “Romantic poetry alone is infinite.”[102] And he pointed even further beyond when he wrote: “The true object of the art should be, instead of resting in externals, to lead the mind upwards into a more exalted region and a spiritual world… by means of a system of Christian philosophy founded on religion.”[103] For the purpose of restoring the sublime aesthetic of the divine infinity, Schlegel advocated the restoration of “the grand, the boundless, and infinite, concentrated in the idea of an entire Gothic fabric”, which he celebrated as “a rare and truly beautiful combination of contrasting elements, conceived by the power of human intellect, and aiming at faultless perfection in the minutest details, as well as in the lofty grandeur and comprehensiveness of the general design.”[104]

This Romantic restoration of the Gothic aesthetic required the aesthetics of the infinite to be re-imagined as well, beyond the counterfeit model of virtual representation, in a genuine theology of divine infinity. Kant had presented the virtual infinity as little more than the empty postulation of a regulative ideal, consisting in a Euclidean matrix of pure intuition in terms reminiscent of the infinite Newtonian cosmology, and the thing-in-itself in terms reminiscent of the infinitesimal Leibnizian monadology.[105] But his antinomies of cosmological and aesthetic judgment had also suggested that its insuperable contradictions might only be resolved by an aestheticized dialectic that would inspire the romantic genius to create ever new forms of art. Thus the Oldest System Programme of German Idealism describes how poetry “obtains a higher dignity” when it “becomes again in the end what it was in the beginning – teacher of the human race.”[106] Fichte had initially conceived the infinite as an asymptotic approximation to some infinite goal that merely ‘ought-to-be’.[107] But Schelling had fully naturalized Fichte’s infinite ‘ought’ into the “infinite activity of nature” at “every stage of becoming.”[108] This infinite spirit of nature had, for Schelling, remained bounded within the finite parameters of physics until it was liberated by Hegel from the virtual net of representation.[109] In the Philosophy of Nature, he recognized, for the first time since Nicholas of Cusa, how “space is a contradiction” whose “truth is the self-transcendence of its moments” in time.[110] And in the Science of Logic, Hegel argued that Fichte’s infinite ‘ought-to-be’ must produce a finitized infinity of determinate limits; engender an intrinsic self-contradiction between every finite limit and its own infinite ‘ought’ to exceed the finite; and, by this contradiction, propel a ceaseless oscillation between the finite and the finitized infinite until even this determinate oscillation may be dialectically sublated into the “genuine infinite.”[111] Once every virtual representation of such potentially infinite but ultimately finite spaces had been exposed as contradictory, and the contradictions of the virtual infinity had been folded back into the Idea, then its negative infinity could be made positive, and its aesthetic of the sublime could once more usher hungry souls from the matrix of representation back into the mysterious Gothic space of divine infinity.

[1] Hesiod. Theogony. ll. 116-138. After the Greeks had vanquished the Persian Empire on sea and land, Pheidias chose to sculpt the image of the centauromachy into the pediment of the Parthenon as a triumphant celebration of the victory of the finite human proportions.
[2] Anaximander Fragments 1-3. Recent scholarship has emphasized the productive generation of limited beings from Anaximander’s unlimited Apeiron, which abysmally foreshadows every subsequent positive infinity. Cf. Finkelberg, Aryeh. “Anaximander’s Conception of the “Apeiron””, Phronesis, 38, 3, 1993: 231; Sweeney, Leo. Divine Infinity in Greek and Medieval Thought, 1998: 542-546.
[3] Philolaus writes: “Nature (physis) in the world-order (cosmos) was fitted together out of things which are unlimited and out of things which are limiting, both the world-order as a whole and everything in it.” Fr. 1. Porphyry reports that Pythagoras “learned the mathematical sciences from the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Phoenicians.” Cf. Porphyry. The Life of Pythagoras, trans. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie: §6, p.82.
[4] Philolaus writes: “The first thing fitted together, the one in the centre of the sphere, is called the hearth.” Fragment 7. Cf. Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic. Huffman trans., 1993.
[5] Klein, Joseph. Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra. 1968: 64-66.
[6] Philolaus. Fragment 2. Cf. Fragment 3: “For you cannot know what is not - that is impossible - nor utter it.” Cf. Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic. Huffman trans., 1993.
[7] Fragment 7: “For this shall never be proved, that the things that are not are…” Cf. Coxon, A. H. The Fragments of Parmenides: A critical text with introduction, translation, the ancient testimonia and a commentary, 2009. 
[8] Plato. Phaedo 100b; Republic, 596a. This principle of the unlimited plenitude of Ideas was extended to any Idea that could be signified by any name (e.g. the Ideas of couches and tables). When Socrates admits to the unseemliness of Ideas of “hair or mud or dirt”, Parmenides reassures Socrates that his doubts have arisen because he still gives too much “attention to what the world will think” and “philosophy has not yet taken hold” of him. Cf. Plato. Parmenides, 130d-e.
[9] Rosen, Stanley. “Ideas”, The Review of Metaphysics, 16, 3, 1963: 416-418. Plato also entertains an anti-foundational circle of infinite reason at the conclusion of the Theaetetus, where he characterizes the search for apodictic certainty in finite judgments as “the most vicious of circles” leading towards the “most absolute darkness.” Cf. Plato. Theaetetus, 209e; Cf. Findlay, John Niemeyer. Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines, 1974: 228. And, in his most enigmatic dialogue, the Parmenides, Plato casts out upon the “vast and hazardous sea” of dialectic to signal the inconsistency of Parmenidean ontology in the first hypothesis, and Pythagorean arithmology in the second hypothesis. Cf. Plato. Parmenides, 137a, 137c-142a, 142b-155e; Cf. Sayre, Kenneth. Plato’s Late Ontology, 1983: 49-60.
[10] Plato. Philebus, 16c-17a; 26d-e.
[11] Ibid. 26e; Cf. Achtner, Wolfgang. “Infinity as a Transformative Concept in Science and Theology”, In Infinity: New Research Frontiers, Heller, Michał & Woodin, W. H. eds., Cambridge University Press, 19, 2011.
[12] Plato suggests this problem in the Philebus when, after signalling that pleasure is a metonym for the unlimited, he describes a paradox of pleasure, in which whatever is sought for pleasure becomes no longer pleasurable in the very instant in which  satisfied. Cf. Plato. Philebus, 31b-32d.
[13] Ibid. Philebus, 26d, 27a, 28c; Timaeus, 30b. The unlimited may thus be incorporated into the infinite self-motion, goodness, and power of the World-Soul. Cf. Plato. Phaedrus, 248e; Laws, 256b.
[14] Plato. Theaetetus, 147d; Euclid, The Elements, Bk. X. The Pythagoreans responded with a more murderous move when they purportedly drowned Hippasus at sea after he had discovered that the square root of the number two is an irrational number that could never be reduced to a finite fraction. Cf. Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica, 18: 88.
[15] In the Method of Mechanical Theorems, he anticipated by Cavalieri’s method of indivisibles and Newton-Leibniz’ infinitesimal calculus when he attempted to calculate the surface of a sphere with an infinity of right triangles. Plato may also be read to have suggested the possibility of calculating the surface and composition of a sphere using right triangles when in the Timaeus he describes the onto-noetic construction of every complex structure within the cosmos from basic right triangles. Cf. Plato. Timaeus, 54a.
[16] Aristotle. Physics, Bk. III, ch.4; Plato. Republic, 596a-b; Phaedo, 100c; Paul Tannery hypothesized that Zeno’s arguments for the absurdity of infinitesimal divisibility were a response to non-extant Pythagorean writers, whose monadic limit-forms suggested infinitesimal atoms. Cf. Tannéry, Paul. L'Histoire de la science héllène, 1887; Berryman, “Ancient Atomism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. <>
[17] This mereological paradox of composition applies mutatis mutandis to every later reiteration of materialism from the Epicureans to the French materialists.
[18] Aristotle, Physics, Bk. III Ch. 4. 203b30.
[19] Ibid. 202b-208a.
[20] Aristotle may have alternatively attributed a non-quantitative actual infinity to the power of the First Mover. Cf. Mondolfo, Rodolfo. L’infinito ne pensiero dell’ antichita classica, 1956. For a dissenting opinion, see Sweeney, Leo. Divine Infinity in Greek and Medieval Thought, 1998: 143-167.
[21] Plato. Republic, 509b.
[22] Plato. Parmenides, 137d.
[23] Dillon, John. Heirs of the Old Academy: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC): 42; Cf. Iamblichus, De Communi Mathematica Scientia.
[24] Ibid., 54-56. John Dillon argues that only five ontological levels deserve to be counted, but a consistent application of Speucippus’ causal equivocity may have implied a potentially infinite series of levels. Aristotle seems to corroborate this criticism when he characterized Speucippus’ as a “bad tragedy.”; Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. 14, 1090b20.
[25] Many of the distinctive Middle Platonist doctrines such as the Ideas in the mind of God, the correlation of the Greek pantheon with the supreme Ideas (e.g. One : Zeus :: Dyad : Poseidon :: Mixture : Athena), and even the emanation of the world from the One can be traced back to Xenocrates. The doctrine of emanationism, in which the Godhead continuously pours forth creation, is generally attributed to Plotinus, but Varro suggests that Xenocrates may have been the first describe the Ideas as actively generated from the mind of God, and Aetius reports that he had already described the Dyad in distinctly emanationist terms as the ‘Everflowing’. This, together with allusions by Plato (Republic 508e, Phaedrus 245c), hints that Plotinus had quite correctly recovered and radicalized an authentic doctrine of Plato and his earliest students. Cf. Dillon, John. Heirs of the Old Academy: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC): 100, 154. Cf. Dillon, John. The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220: 22-39.
[26] Dillon, John. Heirs of the Old Academy: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC): 100-107. Plato often indicated that he favoured a four-tier ontology, which may have been modelled on the Pythagorean Tetractys: for example, in the Republic (533e-534a), he describes four epistemic levels of noesis, dianoia, pistis, and eikasia; in the Philebus (23c-26e), he describes four principles of limit, unlimited, mixture, and cause; in the Timaeus (31b, 39e) he describes the four elements and four creatures. Aristotle also hints that Plato may even have intended to theoretically reconstruct the cosmos on these Pythagorean principles when he reports (Metaphysics 1090b) that “[t]here are some who think that, because the point is the limit and extreme of the line, and the line of the plane, and the plane of the solid, there must be entities of this kind.” In light of the evidence of Plato’s unwritten lecture On the Good, this report may be read as a veiled reference to Plato, or Plato’s students. Cf. Aristoxenus, Elementa Harmonica II 30-31; Cf. Gaiser, Konrad. “Lecture on the Good.” Phronesis, 25, 1, 1980: 25-27. Cf. Findlay, John. Plato and Platonism: An Introduction, 1978: 40-48.
[27] Cf. Gn. 17:1, 21.33; Dt. 4:39, 32:40, 33:27; Ps. 8:27, 32:9, 90:2, 139:7, 134:6, 143:3, 144:3, 145:5, 147:5; Jb. 11:4, 38:1; Is. 46.9; Rm. 11:33; Ep. 3:8; Jn. 1:3.
[28] Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo, Complete and Unabridged, C.D. Yonge trans.; Cf. Philo, On the Eternity of the World: 15; Plato, Timaeus, 29e.
[29] Ibid. Cf. On the Creation, 134; Questions and Answers on Genesis I, 5.
[30] Guyot, Henri. L'Infinite Divine: Depuis Philon Le Juif Jusqu'a Plotin, 1906. Guyot’s thesis has been contested by H.S. Wolfson for spuriously inferring divine infinity from the absence of determinate attributes. However, once determinate attribution is recognized as a Pythagorean limit-form, then the absence of any determinate attributes may be correlated with the current of Middle Platonist emanationism. Cf. H.A. Wolfson, Philo, Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Cambridge, 1947: 2.126-138
[31] Guyot, Henri. L'Infinite Divine: Depuis Philon Le Juif Jusqu'a Plotin, 1906, 50-55; Cf. Geljon, Albert-Kees. “Divine Infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Philo of Alexandria”, Vigiliae Christianae, 59, 2, 2005: 169.
[32] Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo, Complete and Unabridged, C.D. Yonge trans.; Cf. The Special Laws, I. III. 20.
[33] Plato. Republic, 509b.
[34] Longinus. On the Sublime, H.L. Havell trans., 1980: I.4.
[35] Ibid.: IV.4. Cf. Shaw, Phillip. The Sublime, 2007:4-5. Plato does not make the modern distinction between the sublime and the beautiful because he conceived of the beautiful (kalon) as the fine, the temperate, and the good. Plato thus tended to assimilate beauty to the virtue, which is exemplarily portrayed in the sublime life of Socrates. Cf. Hippias Major, 285e; Charmides, 154b-e. Longinus may have been a friend of the founder of Neo-Platonism, Ammonius Saccas, and the teacher of Plotinus’ biographer Porphyry. Cf. Longinus. On the Sublime, H.L. Havell trans., 1980, Introduction by Andrew Lang, 1980: xv-xviii.
[36] Plotinus, Enneads. V.5. 10-11, in MacKenna, Stephen. Plotinus: The Enneads. Second Ed.
[37] Cunningham, Conor. Genealogy of Nihilism, 2002: 5: “Plotinus develops a meontological philosophy in which non-being is the highest principle. The One is beyond or otherwise than being.”
[38] Hart, David Bentley. “Notes on the Concept of the Infinite in the History of Western Metaphysics”, in Infinity: New Research Frontiers, ed. Michael Heller, 2014: 262-3: “[I]f the truth of all things is a principle in which they are grounded and by which they are simultaneously negated, then one can draw near to the fullness of truth only through a certain annihilation of particularity.”
[39] The Gnostics expressed this agony when they asked why, if the One is perfectly Good, and every emanation is less good and more evil, should evil emanate from the goodness of the One? The Gnostics proposed to circumvent, but could never resolve this problem, by producing a phantasmagoria of new myths, such as the stray passions of the Aeon Enthymesis, that promised to emancipate the initiate by successively infinitizing the finite. Cf. Irenaeus of Lyon. Against the Heresies. BK.I.21.4: “deficiency and suffering had their origin in ignorance, the entire system originating in ignorance is dissolved by knowledge (gnosis).” Cf. Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion, 2001: 188-194.
[40] The nativity, crucifixion, and the pieta are among the most deliberate attempts to represent this singular coincidence of the sublime and the beautiful.
[41] Tertullian. De Carne Christi V, 4
[42] Origen. De Principiis, Bk.II.Ch.9.
[43] Augustine of Hippo. City of God, IV, Bk.XII,18. Centuries later, Georg Cantor would cite this passage as a Patristic precedent for his no less Platonic doctrine of transfinite sets. Cf. Cantor, Georg. “Letter from Cantor to Hermite”, Nov. 30, 1895, in Meschkowski (1967), 262.
[44] Williams, Rowan. Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2001, 48-66.
[45] Augustine also argued that when Christ had said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30) he had also affirmed co-equality of Christ and God. Cf. Augustine of Hippo. Tractates on the Gospel of John, tr.36.9.
[46] Mühlenberg, Ekkehard. Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa Gregors Kritik am Gottesbegriff der Klassischen Metaphysik. Göttingen, 1966; cf. Sweeney 1992: 473–504.
[47] Gregory of Nyssa. Against Eunomius, IX.3.
[48] This analogous relation of any of the two divine persons to a third is tantamount, not only to Augustine’s subsistent relations in the immanent Trinity, but also to the principle paradigm of the analogy of being in the vestigial trinitatis of grammar and creaturely relations. 
[49] Pseudo-Dionysius of Areopagite. The Divine Names, II.1:77; V.10: 142.
[50] Ibid. The Divine Names, VIII.1:155.
[51] Ibid. The Divine Names, IX.3:163.
[52] Ibid. The Divine Names, II.1:77.
[53] Ibid. The Divine Names, IX.2: 162.
[54] Ibid. The Divine Names, IX.7: 167: “[T]he same things are both like unto God and unlike Him: like Him in so far as they can imitate Him that is beyond imitation, unlike Him in so far as the effects fall short of the Cause and are infinitely and incomparably inferior.”
[55] Ibid. The Divine Names, IV.4: 91: “From the Good comes the light which is an image of Goodness; wherefore the Good is described by the name of “Light,” being the archetype thereof which is revealed in that image.”
[56] Abbot Suger. On What was Done in His Administration, XXVII. Concerning the Cast and Gilded Doors.
[57] John Scottus Eriugena, who himself had translated and commented upon Pseudo-Dionysius, had described God as the “infinity of infinities.” Cf. The Division of Nature, I.517b; II.525a. No mention of it is found, for example, in Peter the Lombard’s Sentences. Cf. Burns, Robert. “Divine Infinity in Thomas Aquinas: 1. Philosophical-Theological Background”: 58.
[58] Anselm of Canterbury. Proslogion, Bk.I, ch.5.
[59] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. IA. Q.2, A.3. Etienne Gilson describes how “the very foundation of this doctrine [for Aquinas is] the universally accepted doctrine in medieval theology… that God is infinitely above anything we can think and say about him.” Gilson, Etienne. The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1937: 108.
[60] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. IA. Q.3 & Q.7.
[61] Thomas Aquinas. On the Power of God, Q.1, A.2.
[62] Aquinas argues against Anselm that even if the word ‘God’ signifies that of which nothing can be thought “it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally.” Anselm had assumed that the divine essence implied divine existence, but once Aquinas, following Aristotle and anticipating Schelling, had divided essence from existence, the former could not imply the latter. Cf. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. IA, Q2, A.1. Obj. 2.
[63] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. IA. Q.7. A.4. Where Plato had robustly conceived of eidetic numbers as Ideas generated by the supreme Principles and multiply instantiated in numerically distinct sensible objects, Aristotle rejects eidetic numbers to thinly re-conceive them as little more than abstract concepts generalized by the intellect from quantities of numerical distinct sensible substances. Cf. Plato, Parmenides, 143c; Aristotle, Metaphysics, 987b. For Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato’s eidetic numbers, see Metaphysics XIII, ch.6-8.
[64] Bonaventure. The Mind’s Road to God. Ch.5, 7.
[65] Henry of Ghent. Summa II, A.11, Q.2. Gilson describes this as a “complete reversal of the Greek idea of infinity conceived as the condition of that which, being left unfinished, lacks the determinations required for its perfection.” But this may only be construed as a reversal if ‘infinity’ is rendered as the Pythagorean-Platonic ‘unlimited’ (apeiron) opposed to the proportionate limit-forms. Once, however, every limit-form is elevated, in the Platonic tradition,  to an infinitely reproducible perfect paradigm, then it becomes evident that Henry of Ghent had not so much reversed as reiterated the Greek idea of infinity on the quasi-transcendental and epistemic plane of intellective being. Cf. Gilson, Etienne. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 1955: 448-9.
[66] Leclerc, Ivor. The Nature of Physical Existence, 2002: 68.
[67] Cross, Richard. Duns Scotus: Great Medieval Thinkers, 1999: 26. Cf. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I.II.3c.1.1.49b.
[68] John Duns Scotus. Ordinatio.,n.143; Cit. Cross, Richard. Duns Scotus: Great Medieval Thinkers, 1999: 40.
[69] Ibid. D.2, Q.2.7.I 7: 89. Scotus argues, for instance, that since “the totality of essentially ordered causes is from some cause that is not any part of the totality”, and an infinite number of essentially ordered causes could not exist at once, there must be an infinitely superior cause of the essentially ordered causal series. Cf. John Duns Scotus. Ordinatio. D.2, Q.2.7.III 39-53: 104-109.
[70] Ibid. Quod.5,m.2; Cf. Cross, Richard. Duns Scotus: Great Medieval Thinkers, 1999: 40; Richard Cross notes that this virtual actualization of potential infinity anticipates post-Cantor mathematics.
[71] Pickstock, Catherine. “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance”, Modern Theology, 21:4, 2005: 547: “[U]nivocity is for Scotus a semantic thesis regarding the constancy of meaning through diverse predications, all the same he tends to semanticise the field of ontology itself, through his thesis of essential and virtual inclusion.”
[72] Nicholas of Cusa. On Learned Ignorance II, c.11; Cf. Hoff, Johannes, Kontingenz, Berührung, Überschreitung: Zur philosophischen Propädeutik christlicher Mystik nach Nikolaus von Kues, 2007: 309-324.
[73] Borsche, Tilman. “Das Bild von Licht und Farbe in den philosophischen Meditationen des Nikolaus von Kues”, in Viderere et videri coincident: 163-182. Cf. Hoff, Johannes. The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa. 2013: 40.
[74] Bond, H. Lawrence. Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings. Introduction, 1997: 20. Thierry of Chartres had earlier responded to the nominalist tritheism of Roscelin of Compiègne by recollecting Pseudo-Dionysius’ Neo-Platonic doctrine that, just as every multiplicity is derived from some prior unity, so might every contradiction be resolved by the complex participation of all differences in the One. Cf. Pseudo-Dionysius of Areopagite. The Divine Names, IX.7: 167: “[T]he same things are both like unto God and unlike Him: like Him in so far as they can imitate Him that is beyond imitation, unlike Him in so far as the effects fall short of the Cause and are infinitely and incomparably inferior”; Cf. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, I.19.57; Proclus. Elements of Theology, 1099: 32–35; Plato. Sophist, 256e-257c.
[75] Milbank, John. Mathesis and Methexis: the Post-Nominalist Realism of Nicholas of Cusa, Unpublished draft: 31: “Cusa notably affirms the latter by saying that everything paradoxically participates in the very God who cannot be participated.”
[76] Hoff, Johannes. The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa. 2013: 70.
[77] William of Ockham. Quodlibetal Questions. II Q. 2; 1980: 112–16; Cf. Gracia, Jorge ed. A Companion to the
Philosophy of the Middle Ages, William of Ockham, 2008: 708-714.
[78] Ibid. VII, Q.21. Cf. Tweedale, Martin. “Scotus and Ockham: On the Infinity of the Most Eminent Being”, Franciscan Studies, 23, 1963: 265.
[79] The Babylonian place-value number system made subsequent zero signs into a multiplier of natural numbers (i.e. 1, 10, 1000,…, etc.); the Egyptians had likewise employed place-holder symbols for unknown magnitudes in quadratic equations; Aristotle had separated abstract numbers from Pythagorean arithmology and Platonic eidetic numbers; and Diophantus, Al-Khorwarizmi, and François Vieta had gradually substituted natural numbers for abstract variables. Cf. Klein, Joseph. Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, 1992: 104: “Accordingly, [to Aristotle's theory of abstraction] the methematika have their being 'by abstraction', that is, their separate mode of being arises from their being 'lifted off', 'drawn off', 'abstracted'. This is why the 'dependence' of mathematical formations works no detriment to their noetic character.”
[80] Pickstock, Catherine. After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, 1998: 49-70.
[81] Knobloch, Eberhard. “Galileo and Leibniz: Different Approaches to Infinity”, Arch. Hist. Exact Sci., 54, 1999: 91; Cf. Nicholas of Cusa. De coniecturis. In Werke. Ed. by P. Wilpert, v.1, 1967: 147.
[82] Descartes indicated his indebtedness to this tradition when he famously argued, in his Third Meditation, from the innate idea of an infinity being to the existence of God. His innate idea of an infinite being is neither Augustinian divine illumination, nor even Platonic recollection (anamnesis), but rather a distinctly Ockhamist repetition of Duns Scotus’ argument from virtual infinity to divine simplicity. Cf. Descrates, René. The Third Meditation.
[83] Pascal, Blaise. Pensées, §205.
[84] Harrison, Edward. “Newton and the Infinite Universe”. Physics Today, 39, 2, 24, 1986: 24.
[85] Harrison, Edward. “Newton and the Infinite Universe”. Physics Today, 39, 2, 24, 1986: 24. Newton wrote “there is nothing in space, yet we cannot think that space does not exist, just as we cannot think that there is no duration, even though it would be possible to suppose that nothing whatever endures. This is manifest from the spaces beyond the world, which we must suppose to exist (since we imagine the world to be finite).”
[86] Rescher, Nicholas.Leibniz' Conception of Quantity, Number, and Infinity”. The Philosophical Review, 64, 1, 1955: 111. The paradox of an infinite set of all numbers that is not greater than its parts had already been recognized by Galileo, but would also later emerge as one of the decisive problem for naïve set theory, for example, in Cantor’s Paradox and Russell’s Paradox.
[87] Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. “Letter to Foucher”, Journal de Sçavans, March 16, 1693, G I 416.
[88] Cf. Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. The Principles of Philosophy Known as Monadology. §§36-41
[89] Plato. Hippias Major, 285e; Charmides, 154b-e; Aristotle. Metaphysics, 1078b.
[90] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. I, Q.39, A.8. Cf. Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary, 2000: 91.
[91] Milbank, John. “Sublimity: The Modern Transcendent”, in Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature, and Theology Approach the Beyond, Regina Schwartz ed. 2004: 211.
[92] This naturalization of the sublime produced an early dispute between the advocates of an infinitely objective account of the beautiful, which Wolf and Baumgarten described as a formal proportion, and an infinitesimally subjective account of the beautiful, which Shaftesbury and Hutcheson characterized it as inner sense. Cf. Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary, 2000: 91.
[93] Burke, Edmund. On the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Of the Sublime. 1757: §VIII, p. 148. John Milbank seeks to save Burke’s aesthetic of the sublime from Kant’s ‘metaphysics of the sublime’ when he writes: “Burke it is established in a distinctively different fashion which rather than placing the Sublime over the Beautiful by removing the role of eros, instead achieves the same thing by dividing the erotic itself.” Cf. Milbank, John. in Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature, and Theology Approach the Beyond. Ed. Regina Schwartz, 2004: 222.
[94] Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Sublime and the Beautiful. Kant often describes the sublime as the infinite that exceeds all proportions and the beautiful as the finite teleological relations within proportions: Lofty oaks and lonely shadows in sacred groves are sublime, flowerbeds, low hedges, and trees trimmed into figures are beautiful. The night is sublime, the day is beautiful… the sublime must be simple, the beautiful can be decorated and ornamented… the virtue of the woman is a beautiful virtue. That of the male sex ought to be a noble virtue.” He unambiguously repudiates his former psychological description of the sublime when he writes: “The transcendental exposition of aesthetic judgments that has now been completed can be compared with the physiological exposition, as it has been elaborated by a Burke and many acute men among us, in order to see whither a merely empirical exposition of the sublime and the beautiful would lead.” Cf. Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, Guyer and Matthews trans., 2000: §29, 5: 277, p. 158.
[95] Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, Guyer and Matthews trans., 2000: §§28-29, 5: 263-277, pp. 147, 158: The transcendental exposition of aesthetic judgments that has now been completed can be compared with the physiological exposition, as it has been elaborated by a Burke and many acute men among us, in order to see whither a merely empirical exposition of the sublime and the beautiful would lead.
[96] Kant himself describes the principle antinomy of aesthetic judgment, in which the purity of the concepts of beauty and sublimity result a dilemma between the pure aesthetic judgment that is thought but not felt, or felt but not thought: for if there were some universal concept that could demonstrate an aesthetic judgment, then there would be no freedom either for artistic taste or creativity; but if, to the contrary, there were no such universal concept, then neither could there ever be any expectation of universal agreement. Cf. Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Guyer and Matthews trans., 2000: §8, §46.
[97] John Milbank describes how "the sublime is only sublime as a rupture in this or that context, or of this or that beautiful proportion" Cf. Milbank, John. “Sublimity: The Modern Transcendent”, in Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature, and Theology Approach the Beyond, Regina Schwartz ed. 2004: 221. Heine also colourfully characterized Kant as the “arch-destroyer in the realm of thought”. Cf. Heine, Heinrich. Religion and Philosophy in Germany. Snodgrass trans., 1959: 109.
[98] Herder, Johann Gottfried. Kalligone, 1800; Cf. Guyer, Paul. “Free Play and True Well-Being: Herder’s Critique of Kant’s Aesthetics”, 2006.
[99] Schiller, Friedrich. “On the Sublime”, In Naive and Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime: Two Essays, Julius A. Elias trans., 1967. Schiller emerges at this decisive juncture as, not merely the first to ethicize the sublime aesthetic of the infinite, but also the first to aestheticize the post-Kantian political order.
[100] Hegel writes of Schiller: “It is Schiller who must be given great credit for breaking through the Kantian subjectivity and abstraction of thinking and for venturing on an, attempt to get beyond this by intellectually grasping the unity and reconciliation as the truth and by actualizing them in artistic production.” Cf. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of Aesthetics, Bosanquet trans., 1886: 116.
[101] Schiller highlights the escape from the virtual realm of phenomenal representation when he writes: “We gladly allow the imagination to find its master in the realm of phenomena, for it is ultimately, however, only one sensuous force, which triumphs over another sensuous one, but nature in all of its limitlessness can not attain to the absolute greatness in us ourselves… Man is in its hand, but the will of man is in his own.” Cf. Schiller, Friedrich. “On the Sublime”, In Naive and Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime: Two Essays, Julius A. Elias trans., 1967.
[102] Schlegel, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich. Athenaeum Fragments, 1798, Source of original German text: Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, ed., Wolfdietrich Rasch. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958. 
[103] Schlegel, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich. Appeal to Painters of the Present Day, 1804, Source of original German text: Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, ed., Wolfdietrich Rasch. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958.
[104] Schlegel, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich. From The Fundamentals of Gothic Architecture, 1803, Source of original German text: Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, ed., Wolfdietrich Rasch. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958.
[105] Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason, Paul Guyer trans., 1998: A25/B40; A209/B25. See especially the cosmological antinomies: A485/B513.
[106] This anonymous text, which was discovered by Franz Rosenweig in Hegel’s notebooks and Hegel’s handwriting, unabashedly confesses: “I am convinced that the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty-- The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.” Cf. Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, J.M. Bernstein ed., 2002: 185-187.
[107] Fichte, Gottlieb. Introductions to the Science of Knowledge, Heath and Lachs trans., 1991: I, §3, 115-118.
[108] Schelling writes: “Nature is limited must again contain an infinity in itself. Within every sphere other spheres are again formed, and in these spheres others, and so on to infinity… Nature organizes, where it organizes, to infinity.” Cf. Schelling, Joseph Wilhelm Friedrich. First Outline of a System of a Philosophy of Nature, Keith Peterson trans., 2004: 34, 44.
[109] Hegel remarks that the infinite and the infinitesimal “have their true notions in philosophy itself; it is wrong headed to think that they should be borrowed and adapted from mathematics, where they are not employed in conformity with the Notion, and where they are often taken up at random.” Cf. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, M.J. Petry trans., 1970: §259, I. 234.
[110] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, M.J. Petry trans., 1970: §257, I.229. Hegel recognized that Kant’s antinomies of aesthetic judgment, like Nicholas of Cusa’s paradoxes of virtual infinity, produced contradictions for any intuitive conception of space and time. He writes: Time, like space, is a pure form of sensibility or intuition; it is the insensible factor in sensibility… It is limited, and the other involved in this negation is outside it. Consequently, the determinateness is implicitly external to itself, and is therefore the contradiction of its being. Time itself consists of the abstraction and contradiction of this externality and of the restlessness of this contradiction.” Cf. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, M.J. Petry trans., 1970: §258, I.230.
[111] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Logic, A.V. Miller trans., 1969: §§269-272, pp. 136-137.

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