on 22 August 2013
Though unenthusiastic about the title and the available sample pages from "Orthodox Readings of Aquinas" at its release, my misgivings proved unnecessary. Happily, I bought the book all the same and am satisfied with several aspects of the work. I must admit, however, a paperback is needed both to attract readership because the price is disproportionate to the reading content (though the bibliography is quite valuable).
Let's start with the general positives:
1.) Plested is irenic and conciliatory in a field, which has witnessed increasing extremism and radical theories (primarily among ultra-orthodox). Though a reader will likely consider Plested "on the side of Aquinas," his approach is much more digestible than some of the wretched apologetics (even among contemporary authors), who reject out of hand Augustine, Aquinas (and Scotus) as part and parcel of "doing Byzantine theology" post 14th century.
2.) Plested has attempted to accomplish an "historical reconciliation" of Orthodoxy to Aquinas (and other Latins). He has used a wide variety of authors and has -on the main- tried to find the positive side of a middle-way (via media). I say "historical" since this work does not pretend and cannot hope to accomplish a "metaphysical" or "ontological" reconciliation. I will discuss this further below.
3.) Plested finally cross-pollinated in a very specialized field employing diverse "experts" on Palamism, who have previously refused to use authors they disagree with (why I do not know). There has been an unscholarly tendency to only use published authors that support some singular read on Palamas. Look for yourself, how many modern "experts" dismiss Thomas and Scotism and do not even cite one primary source of Scotus, nor do they show any knowledge of his metaphysics. If they cite Aquinas, it is specifically NOT on studies already published that show direct dependence of Palamites on the two Summae of Aquinas. They may wax eloquently about their own theoptikê, but eventually the weight of scholarship will have to be dealt with. Plested took upon himself quite a few risks in trying to include everyone and I think he did much better than I could have expected considering the need for an inter-disciplinarian approach.
4.) The General editors assured his need for well-grounded research, even if Plested's opinions are his own. E.g., R. Cross' standards should be beyond anyone's suspicion.
On a more specific note, Plested did an excellent job of giving historical highlights with a sympathetic approach to each author. On occasion he hinted at the contributions, theological approaches and some salient metaphysical positions held by each author. The true value of the work is to NOT generalize and to take each as a free and interesting individual with his own perspective. Though there are quite a few shared theological values among Orthodox theologians studied in this volume, there is an admission (based on primary and secondary literature) that they have their own divergencies and idiosyncracies. One is left with impression that "theological tolerance" is necessary due to "theological currents" apparent in ostensibly and canonically Orthodox authors, who undoubtedly valued Aquinas (and others to varying degrees).
Lastly, Plested finally, and perhaps for the first time, has used historical indications to admit that Scotus will have to be dealt with in Orthodoxy. Orthodox Palamites recognized a kindred spirit in Scotus (who was opposed to the the Filioque metaphysics of Aquinas). Hervaeus Natalis was translated by 1370 in Byzantium. Scotus provided a completed system of metaphysics based upon Damascene and Ps.-Dionysios that was likely utilized by Eugenikos (who studied Scotus -per Monfasani- in 1437) at Florence when debating the Dominicans. Mark arguied for an immanent universal (i.e. infinite essence) with its exemplifications (3 hypostases). Secondly, it is now known that Mark's disciple (Scholarios) used Scotistic theology to defend Palamas (in fact Hervaeus Natalis). The reality is that Scotus was likely employed to veer Palamites off of the Thomistic trajectory they were on (Demetracopoulos, "Palamas Transformed"). In the end, Scotus and Palamas are allies (per Milbank) even if many of us do not like Milbank's denigration of both (or one) of them (who use the same metaphysics).
I reluctantly bring up the negatives:
The risk of this kind of work is oversimplification (because of space and the need to rely on secondary literature). In fact, the specialist will be tempted to be overly critical of the work. I will argue he should not be, since it is in his best interest to support an honest and studied effort to divulge to the public an extremely specialized area. That said, Orthodox will not be unjust in noticing an exaggerated tendency toward reconciliation. I will give jus a few examples that require us to be cautious (though not condemnatory) of this "intro to" Eastern Thomism:
1.) John Italus was also condemned for "syllogizing" about the faith, not merely for pagan Platonic ideas. This has been established for some time (in addition to the primary sources).
2.) Andrew Chrysoberges was not the first "good Thomist" (e.g.., Demetrius Cydones) to suggest the irreconcilability of Thomas to Palamas (the author does qualify this with "perhaps").
3.) Though Eugenikos is styled an anti-unionist, in fact he publicly declared his desire for the "divine work of union" at the Council and was incredibly patient with the likes of Chrysoberges and the fanatical anti-Palamite Thomists (3 of which explicitly petitioned a condemnation of Palamas to Eugenius IV at Ferrara-Florence). Thomists opposed Palamas based upon the metaphysics they detected in him that were akin to Scotus, whom they abhorred.
On another score, we should not read an historical work that argues very well for Orthodoxy's sympathy for Thomas' genius to mean that the two systems are metaphysically reconcilable. My guess is that the absence of Demetracopoulos' "Palamas Transformed" from this work is a case in point. Palamas believed in a distinction within the essence of God prior to any consideration of any thinking mind in the universe. The distinction/s cause/s the mind to think "distinction". Demetracopoulos powerful study is likely resisted since we see divergent tracts of Palamism by Palamite metaphysicians far more interested in "abstract philosophy" than post-Kantian Orthodox and Catholic concrete historians of theology. To the extent that a Palamite embraced Aquinas God-metaphysic, he minimized Palamas' distinction, to the extent that he embraced Palamas...he was attracted to Scotus' solution. As such, Milbank is right on the formal distinction in Palamas and Scotus. Orthodox Thomists from Capreolus down to Lagrange and even contemporaries all recognize that analogy of the concept of being (or even Cajetan's take on things) cannot be reconciled to Scotus' "univocity of the concept of being." Analogy attempts to find a via media between equivocation and univocation of the concept of being between God and creature. The two systems are irreconcilable logically and historically. All the accusations against Palamas are the same historically metaphysical accusations against Scotus (pantheism, placing God in the "genus" of being). In short, we cannot use history to overcome the reality that Palamites and Latins were often good metaphysical-logicians and were only equalled around the time of Frege, etc. No one, not even the modern phenomenologists, have overcome the dichotomy between Palamas-Scotus and Aquinas. It may be true that both schools reject the Nominalism that is said of Gregoras and Akindynos, but from then on we have only irreconcilability.
What Plested rightly points to, however, are the same historical debates in Byzantium as in the West. Aquinas challenged Palamites to develop a more theological and philosophical language for theoptikê. In fact, Rev. Dr. Peter Damian Fehlner, FI, observed long ago that Byzantium (post 14th century) was ultimately a theological climate in which two diverse Palamite schools arose. The first (Palamite Thomists; see Palamas Transformed) attempted to reconcile Palamas to Aquinas' analogy (from the time of emperor John VI-Bryennios) and Palamite Scotists (to some extent Bryennios, willy-nilly Eugenikos, and mostly Scholarios) who attempted to use a more agreeable metaphysic.
My hope is that Plested's book will interest inter-disciplinarian approaches to philosophy in the future that will stop selecting willy-nilly authors and the studies, and force an integrated approach taking into account historical Palamism's metaphysical plane as well. Because of the new discoveries that are constantly being made in this field (thus, the reason for my initial misgivings), we can hope for revised editions of this work. Still, for a complete analysis of Plested's area of study, a logician and-or metaphysician will have to tackle the real nature of the debate, which goes far beyond the historical.