Aquinas, Tsongkhapa, and Proclus' influence on the dark ages.


Aquinas' Codification of Divine Law

While Socrates concept ofsecular natural law did not change for 1900 years, the ideas of religious natural law from Aristotle went through profound evolution. No one disputes that Aquinas' ideas derive from Aristotle's—although some claim Aristotle's are not religious, not knowing theAristotle's traditionalist views described above. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) is known as providing the best statement of the Christian version of divine law, in a gargantuan yet persistently pertinent work of thought known asthe Summa (which he extended to the day of his death in 1274). According to Aquinas, the eternal law of God, manifest to us as natural law, is interpreted by us as human law. The eternal law is theDivine Reason which governs the universe, in which rational beings have understanding and participate.

"Wherefore as the type of the Divine Wisdom, inasmuch as by It all things are created, has the character of art, exemplar or idea; so the type of Divine Wisdom, as moving all things to their due end, bears the character of law. Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and then no one can know the eternal law, as it is in itself, except the blessed who see God in His Essence. But every rational creature knows it in its reflection, greater or less. For every knowledge of truth is a kind of reflection and participation of the eternal law, which is the unchangeable truth, as Augustine says (De Vera Relig. xxxi). Now all men know the truth to a certain extent, at least as to the common principles of the natural law: and as to the others, they partake of the knowledge of truth, some more, some less; and in this respect are more or less cognizant of the eternal law.
-Summa Theologica, III.4,90-96(excerpts). Thomas Aquinas (Venice, 1274).

Divine law is dictated via revelation, whereas human law is dictated by reason alone, so human law can contain errors, and is not all-powerful; if human law contravenes divine law, people are under no compulsion to obey it:

To the natural law belongs those things to which a man is inclined naturally: and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason. Now the process of reason is from the common to the proper, as stated in Phys. i. The speculative reason, however, is differently situated in this matter, from the practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with the necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects.....

...Every law is directed to the common weal of men, and derives the force and nature of law accordingly. Hence the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.]: "By no reason of law, or favor of equity, is it allowable for us to interpret harshly, and render burdensome, those useful measures which have been enacted for the welfare of man." Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.
-Summa Theologica, III.4,90-96(excerpts). Thomas Aquinas (Venice, 1274).

Thus Aquinas himself did not defend civil disobedienceper se, as Aristotle defended the actions ofAntigone. Instead, he simply points to imperfections in human reason in being able to state the proper action in all cases.

Codifying Natural into Human Law

In his new conception of codification and promulgation, Aquinas recognized how transferring laws from the ideal to the practical was thus prone to error from the outset. Over many centuries following, there was much debate about how to ensure the best codification. The excellence in the system of constitutional amendment, in the United States, is testament to the thoroughness of much prior careful consideration on the topic. In fact, the process of checks and balances in defining the codification and promulgation from natural into human law has been found the single most critical aspect of a government's success. The United States itself therefore defines this method very carefully as part of its Constitution, which is mostly a well-defined tripartiteseparation of powers, based on a beautiful collation of successful ideas created byMontesquieu, in "Spirit of the Law" 1748).

Now wherever there are movers ordained to one another, the power of the second mover must needs be derived from the power of the first mover; since the second mover does not move except in so far as it is moved by the first. Wherefore we observe the same in all those who govern, so that the plan of government is derived by secondary governors from the governor in chief; thus the plan of what is to be done in a state flows from the king's command to his inferior administrators: and again in things of art the plan of whatever is to be done by art flows from the chief craftsman to the under-crafts-men, who work with their hands. Since then the eternal law is the plan of government in the Chief Governor, all the plans of government in the inferior governors must be derived from the eternal law. But these plans of inferior governors are all other laws besides the eternal law. Therefore all laws, in so far as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law.
-Summa Theologica, III.4,90-96(excerpts). Thomas Aquinas (Venice, 1274).

'Aquinas Presenting his Work to the Roman Catholic Church,' Ludwig Seitz (Vatican Fresco, 1887)
'Aquinas Presenting his Work to the Roman Catholic Church,' Ludwig Seitz (Vatican Fresco, 1887)

Aquinas' Derivation of Authority

The theological derivation of authority for Aquinas' natural law, being based on revelation, simply draws directly from biblical passages, as the bible is regarded as the revealed Word of God. Here I provide a simple set of four passages to explain the conception, first from Genesis:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: andhave dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
- Genesis 1:18, King James version

That is, by grantingdominion, God gave humankind the ability to define its own law, within which we areliken to stewards rather than masters. The 'every living thing' extends to other people too, has been a matter of debate: in Augustine's time, the answer was no (City of God, 19:15), but by the time of Aquinas, the interpretation was that we also have dominion over each other.

A second part of this divine law also forbids us to abuse or squander the privileges of authority, even if the world is not in our favor:

And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them...

Who then is that faithful and wise steward,whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, thathe will make him ruler over all that he hath. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.
- Luke 12:42-46, King James version

Thus the ancient idea of Hellenic fate persisted. On the other hand, while political systems remained a debated issue in ancient Greece, the Christian system of divine law is almost savagely capitalist, as defined here ('talents' were gold coins worth about a thousand dollars in modern currency):

For the Kingdom of Heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to every man according to his several ability, and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them another five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained another two. But he that had received one went and dug in the earth and hid his lord’s money.

After a long time the lord of those servants came and reckoned with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought the other five talents, saying, ‘Lord, thou delivered unto me five talents. Behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.’ His lord said unto him, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, thou delivered unto me two talents; behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.’ His lord said unto him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’

Then he that had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew thee, that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strewed. And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth. Lo, there thou hast what is thine.’ His lord answered and said unto him, ‘Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strewed. Thou ought therefore to have placed my money with the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with interest. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him that hath ten talents.
- Matthew 14:25-28, King James version

The divine law of Aquinas was further different from its Hellenic predecessor in thatit also calls for laborious and proactive, but limited, mercy. For example, we are compared to fig trees in a vineyard, and the steward of the vineyard asks for a chance to save a sickened tree:

A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
- Luke 13:7-9, King James version

Aiding the sick and failing was an important cornerstone in the later formulation ofLocke's benign contract, wherein such acts for the greater good are considered necessary parts of natural law.

Overall, Aquinas concept ofNatural Justice remains to this day the intuitively held idea. Yet somehow, thecomponent of mercy is missing in most current intuitions, which instead only consider our opinion of right and wrong as more important than defined law. Nonetheless, in most cases,people believe that their idea of law is better than the law itself, even if they cannot state why. All that is normally stated is a repetition of intuitive belief without any consideration of where the authority of judgment derives. Also, the concept of divine inspiration is no longer fashionable, to say the least, so this intuitive perspective immediately runs into problems ofparadoxical experience, unless it recognizes theological authority.

Tsongkhapa and the World's Ultimate Theocracy

Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) establishing the single most stable and unbroken system of rule in all world history. His name literally means "a man from Onion Valley,' which is a simple demonstration of his Buddhist humility. At age 7, he joined a Tibetan monastery as an apprentice. At 24, he was ordained as a monk, then became an abbot. His first principal work,The Golden Garland of Eloquence, followed the Yogācāra tradition of their beingtwo planes of existence, the apparent physical domain, and a more absolute domain of emptiness. From this, his later workThe Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment establishedeight domains of intermediate and ultimate existence, which are learned by understanding one's teachers.

At the time of his birth, Tibet was suffering the same problems as China had a thousand years before: there were many different competing interpretations. But his doctrine of humility before the greater teachers was successful in establishing his own theories over others, and within five generations, it had become the single version of Tibetan Buddhism that we know today. At that time, it declared the lineage ofDalai Lamas as those who were Tibet's natural rulers, which already descended in direct form to the first,Gendün Druppa (Tibetan: དགེ་འདུན་གྲུབ་པ།, 1391–1474), and indirectly, even earlier.

The Bodhisattva Doctrine

Tsongkhapa's teachings provided a new way of passing authority from one generation to the next called Phowa (Tibetan: འཕོ་བ་). It may be described as "the practice of conscious dying", "transference of consciousness at the time of death", "mindstream transference", or “enlightenment without meditation.” Most famously, this method is described in theTibetan Book of the Dead, which in Tibetan is actually calledLiberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State. It describes a series of trials after physical death which tempt the mind to reincarnate in various lower states. The adept Buddhist, with correct training, can pass through these temptations and reach a plane of existence where the mind can select to transcend physical form, instead of being reincarnated.

However, some spirits who through their lives have reach a higher plane of existence look back in compassion at those who are trapped in the lower planes and choose to reincarnate again as human beings. These spirits are called the Bodhisattva, and though a Dalai Lama is too humble to name himself as one, his life has already been set on this path by a prior reincarnation, to which end, he continues the order into which he was born.

The doctrine creates a singular problem for the living people when a Dalai Lama dies, because the plane of existence on which his mind transfers to another is beyond that of physical memory. Thus some way of identifying his reincarnation is required. It is said all reincarnations of the Gendün Druppa have been found the same way. Other highly respected monks of senior authority, who are also Bodhisattvas, visit newborns whom are possible reincarnations and present them with an array of toys. Some are new toys, and some are those belonging to his prior reincarnations. If the infant chooses to play with his old toys, he is recognized as the reincarnation. If the infant instead chooses one of the new toys, which are naturally more bright and shiny, then the infant fails the test.

Since the fifth Dalai Lama, they have by tradition lived on top of the Palace of Potala. The palace itself is kept for ritual devotions and administration, and the Dalai Lamas makes a tent on some part of its roof for his daily life. After their physical deaths, the tent is replaced with a temple, resulting in the Potala continuously enlarging.

The Palace of Potala in Lhasa, Tibet
The Palace of Potala in Lhasa, Tibet

The current Dalai Lama is now the 14th in succession chosen by this method. Now 625 years after Gendün Druppa was the first in line, that is the single longest lineage of authority now in existence, making Tibetan Buddhism not only the ultimate theocracy, but also the world's most enduring government.

Needless to say, this long history has not been without problems, the most recent being that China invaded Tibet in 1951. While the Tibetans tried to put up a fight, their hearts were really not in it, and due to their longstanding dislike of warfare in general, possessed only a scattering of antiquated weaponry, so within short order, they surrendered. Under the influx of Chinese party members, the local people found themselves severely oppressed, and after a series of incidents where the people demanded that the Dalai Lama refuse to accept Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India. The Indian government granted him a large area of land on the edge of the Himalayas, in as province called Himachal Pradesh. There he established a new monastery called Dharamsala, which even now still receives more refugees from Tibet every year. Under the Dalai Lama's continued rule there, the area has prospered and built itself a new version of Potala in Lhasa.

The New Home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala
The New Home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala

Two 15th Dalai Lamas

I first met the 14th Dalai Lama in 1981, when he was visiting Oxford University. Since then I occasionally write him, from which I have the strange and unusual honor of being the first to ask him whether he would choose to reincarnate. I suggested, that with all he has done already, he of all people deserves to ascend, and people all over the world continue to demand that he renew conflict with the Chinese. If he did not reincarnate, would he in fact cause less problems to other people? If he did choose to reincarnate, I worried that maybe the Chinese would exploit the situation.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama did not reply for some months, but then stated his people still looked to him for guidance, and so announced his intent to reincarnate and continue his legacy. As expected, the Chinese have since announced that they would choose his next reincarnation themselves, which the Tibetan Buddhists find ridiculous, as it shows no understanding of their method of reincarnation via religious training, nor of respect for Bodhisattvas. But the actual problem remains that China will still select someone, whatever the Tibetan Buddhists say. This means there will be, at least for some time, two Dalai Lamas after the 14th enters transmission. This year, the 14th Dalai Lama announced a plan to circumvent the Chinese meddling. But as yet, it is unknown what exactly it will be.

To which I would add my original statement as to how Buddhism succeeds as a political system. In places where there is no room for population growth, or where people have to live with constraints that prevent increased prosperity, it has flourished. So it is possible that Buddhist ideas will reassert themselves in the future. As to the theological justifications for such a rule as the Dalai Lamas have demonstrated, it is well beyond that which I could address in the context of political philosophy, and well beyond the capacities of most systems of metaphysics, which rather break down in totality, if the method of spiritual transmission defined by Tibetan Buddhists does work as they describe.

Proclus and the Law of Awe

During the long incubation of the Dark Ages, the Holy Roman Empire persisted as a theocracy, sometimes conducting holy wars, often arbitrating between nations, and always ready to impose the equivalent of international trade sanctions (excommunication) if sovereigns abused their subjects, or if they did not acknowledge Christ as greater than themselves. With the rapid spread of the printed word, the Dark Ages had truly ended. Literacy rose from ~10%, in 1450 to ~50% in 1550, and there actually were books to read. Had the church really suppressed knowledge, and if so, why did it survive?

The last of the followers of Plato, Proclus (ca. 412-485 AD) may have been an unintentional influence on how the Dark Ages. He taught that the ancient mystics were actually able to manipulate and control the populace, using myths with the intent to close within themselves the secret truths of reality. This was at the time the Christians were first defining the creed as it still survives to this day. According to Proclus:

"To know the Gods is to identify in souls those feelings which cause human events, in a manner which is incomprehensible to others and therefore manifests as supernatural power. Those simpler souls who simply witness or engage in sacred ceremonies, customs, and holidays are only amazed by Gods, and are possessed by divine awe upon hearing their stories. The more complex souls adapt the common susceptibility to sacred symbols, and as if on the plateaus of the Gods themselves, find an exuberance of spirit totally imperceptible to lesser beings."
- Fragments, Proclus (Athens, 420 BCE)

Part of this awe is created by the synthesis of polytheism and monotheism, which Proclus also advocated in advanced form, derived from the Christian neoplatonist, Plotinus. Plotinus' Enneads (270) defined three metaphysical hypostases:

  1. The One: ineffable and transcendent.
  2. Intellect: In the one there are many. This is the realm of being, including all ideas of form.
  3. Soul: containing the seminal reasons, the lower soul is immanent in the physical world, but transcends the physical through the higher soul's contemplation of the intellect.
Plotinus in Lively Conversation with his Friend Porphyry
Plotinus in Lively Conversation with his Friend Porphyry

Proclus' addition to Plotinus was to enable the 'vulgar' soul, untrained in intellect, to access the ineffable One through awe, and to define a complex hierarchy of multiple Gods, all of which are still part of the One, but which can also be perceived by the soul as separate. This appears to be the philosophical derivation of the idea ofTrinity.

The NeoPlatonic Divine, Understood by Intellect or Awe
The NeoPlatonic Divine, Understood by Intellect or Awe

Such an interpretation of religion's affect on human life does not preclude an individual's belief in any particular God or spiritual force, and does not deny its validity, but rather separates the people into strata, some of whom believe in Gods out of non-comprehending awe alone, and others who not only perceive the divine forces but also work within them. While the metaphysical conception may not be have been absolutely correct, and even may be challenged by other approaches which deny their coherence, the amount of its influence on the course of civilization nonetheless validates its importance empirically.

If it is true that Proclus' writing was an inspiration of the early church formation, it would explain much of the Dark Ages. One superb illustration indicating merit to the notion is the development of the Rood screen. The 'Ecclesia' or 'marketplace' was the Greek origin of the modern church design: stalls on each side of an alley down the center, with an altar at a T-junction at the far end. At first, the Christian community was strongly socialistic, and there was no division imposed between the clergy and congregation. But during the Dark Ages, the people were unable to know the divine as well as the clergy. Slowly the ecclesiastics evolved to represent perfect form in society. Churches became taller and grander, representing the perfect home. Now surviving in austere stone, they were originally painted in candy-cane colors, filled with colored light from stained-glass windows. To separate the clergy from the masses, arood screen was built, with curtains or wooden dividers, so the populace could not see the movement of divine order on the other side. Often there were carvings facing the congregation of saints in agony or rapture, whereas those facing the clergy, never seen by the common people, were humorous grotesques. The rood screens, mostly destroyed during the reformation, only survive in a few places. Here is one in Paris, with spiral staircases ascended as to heaven. The pulpit protrudes from the perfection—or cave—on the far side of the screen into the common people, kept pure by their poverty and innocence. The pulpit provided the one place where the authoritative Word of those knowing how to read could be heard by others. Is it only irony that the stone womb around the altar, lit by colored lights and candles, so closely resembled Plato's Cave, which was his model of how we view reality: only as shadows in the darkness, projected there by some light, perhaps divine, beyond our normal comprehension?

Rood Screen
Rood Screen

For about then centuries, the commoners were in Proclus' awe of the Divine. They admired and feared the church as Guardian of the Light of Knowledge. Around the altar, hidden by Rood screens and curtains, the church kept knowledge, and its quarrels, deep within its physical rendition of Plato's cave.

Polytheistic Transformation of Christianity

Just as the Declaration of Independence contains a dual system of natural law, the Christian church defined a dual system combining the apparently opposed ideas of monotheism and polytheism, integrated in the same way as by Neoplatonics, such as Proclus. Core in the church doctrine was monotheism: the One Word, the One God, the One Faith. But by stating the One was also Three ~ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ~ The Christian church is also polytheistic. The Christian Trinity permits multiple, complete, mutually exclusive explanations of reality which coexist without paradox.

During that long incubatory period of the Dark Ages, the ascendant aspect of the Trinity was God the Father. If Christianity were like many other religions and held that its Gods exist only in complete divine separation from humanity, then the invention of the printing press and the widespread ability to read would have ended Christianity. That bible, rolling off printing presses across Europe, was read by the populace everywhere, destroying the supremacist oppression of knowledge by the Church.

The Christian Church founders had certainly anticipated, if not the breadth and extent, the very nature of the Dark Ages, believing it the best way for civilization to be, because in poverty and innocence. it was felt people could gain salvation more easily. Had it also anticipated the Reformation? Because the theology was designed with three aspects of God in one, the church doctrine transformed instead of declined. Instead of the Father as ascendant, the Son became ascendant. As all people learned all the details of Christ's life, the emphasis of the church simply augmented paternal guidance of an ignorant flock in awe, still maintained by the Catholics, with Protestantism and personal salvation. Moreover, the third element ~ The transcendentalism of the Holy Spirit with its divine supernatural gifts ~ permits personal direct access to salvation through the doctrine of the Covenant: that blood must be shed for transgression of Divine Law. But Christ, by being the incarnate flesh of God, was able to bypass the need for further sacrifice by the intentional destruction of God's Own Flesh for each and every person to call their own, merely through sincere request for forgiveness in prayer. While other religions have taught forgiveness (even the ancient Egyptians and the Vikings), no other theology has cultivated that potent combination of personal salvation with both paternal justice and transcendental power, perhaps accounting for the theology's success and endurance.

It may be of no coincidence that the integration of monotheism and polytheism within one religion is a simplification of Proclus' philosophy. Inside the sanctuaries, the church had been able to keep alive the skills of reading and writing. Meanwhile outside, a feudal system kept the ignorant from the sins of avarice and gluttony, and sloth. Whatever the spiritual justification, there was no further evolution of ideas of natural law and rights to liberty that we now enjoy in the United States, while the great unwashed masses were kept safe in the sanctuary womb of the Platonic cave, where that which is known of real substance can only be seen, in half darkness, as shadows on a wall.