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Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction

Disclosure: I was given a free review copy of this book by the publisher.

Over four centuries ago, one of the greatest Reformed minds wrote about the gifts of the pagans:

For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? … Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? … What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. … Those men whom Scripture … calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. (Institutes, II.2.15; Battles translation)

Some of those who claim the author as theological father disagree. Nevertheless, Calvin was right to say what he did, and up until the last century most of his theological progeny bore his likeness by concurring with him.

Nevertheless the age of Aristotle being widely accepted in the minds of all people, as consciously or unconsciously suffused through philosophy departments, pulpits, and public houses, is surely now past. Yet, sometimes ideas long buried have a way of returning. And in fact in reflecting upon metaphysics, science, and ethics, a growing number of contemporaries are returning to the views of the ancient Greek. But one philosopher in particular has become known, at least in the blogosphere and in the Christian world, for his part in this trend. The philosopher in question is Dr. Edward Feser. Many of his recent books (e.g., The Last Superstition and Aquinas) have tackled related subjects, but his most recent publication, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, is perhaps the one closest to a pure philosophy textbook in format. Unlike The Last Superstition, it is not written at the popular level nor directed primarily at atheists as its target, and unlike Aquinas, it is more narrowly focused on one subdiscipline of philosophy. It has advanced students for its intended audience, and the apex of natural knowledge for its topic.


In general, Feser’s clarity and energy mark the book throughout. One feature that may strike the reader (though I did not notice it until after I had finished) is the absence of footnotes and endnotes. The argument is written as one continuous text, which makes for smooth reading, and frankly this is helpful given how much focus is required to understand the twists and turns of the dialectic itself. Those who enjoyed the humour of The Last Superstition will not find as much to enjoy here, but this is not the type of book for which it would be fitting anyway. Most helpfully, the book’s structure is plain and logically tight. By means of numerical notation, the author signals clearly how various subsections fit into the larger whole, and this is all evident in the table of contents.


A book like this one tempts reviewers toward two ditches: vague encomia which tell nothing of the book, or repetition of every argument made in it. Clocking in at around 260 pages worth of dense argumentation, the latter is impossible; the former is useless. My approach in the following will therefore be to provide the book’s general line of reasoning, and note exemplary arguments I particularly appreciated. Readers should therefore remember that I am far from conveying all the evidence Dr. Feser actually gives for his positions. After the survey, I will attempt to explain why I think Feser’s work is important for Reformed Christians today, and at that point it may become clearer why I have selected the arguments I did.


Chapter “0” is an introduction, but one which plunges straight into philosophical debates. According to Dr. Feser, the philosophical core of the book is Aristotelian with qualifications from an Aristotelianized Neoplatonism; that is, it is fundamentally Thomist. (6) Its basic topics are the fundamental questions about being as such: questions about “causation, substance, essence, modality, identity, persistence, teleology, and the like.” (7) And the structuring theme is the Aristotelian theory of act and potency; the book as a whole attempts to defend the theory and show how crucial elements of scholastic metaphysics, “efficient and final causality, substantial form and prime matter, substance and accident, essence and existence, and so forth … follow from it.” (7)

After introducing the plan, Dr. Feser engages with those who would think metaphysics as such to be a waste of time. That is, he responds to attempts to skewer metaphysics on one of the tines of Hume’s Fork, which he quotes on page 26: “all the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact… .” Reducing metaphysics to the latter is characteristic of scientism, which Dr. Feser argues is self-refuting: the idea that all knowledge is given through the methods of natural science is itself not something natural science could ever prove. (10) Arguing that the only other thing metaphysics could be is “conceptual analysis” is also incorrect, for such an argument would be neither a deliverance of natural science nor conceptual analysis; it would be a metaphysical argument. (26) Dr. Feser closes the introduction by arguing that metaphysics is logically prior to epistemology, since every epistemological position must take for granted some metaphyiscal assumption or another. (28) Scholastics build on a foundation separate from the edifice of modern and postmodern epistemology, as Dr. Feser elaborates:

…the Scholastic simply rejects the entire rationalist/empiricist/Kantian dialectic and insists on maintaining an epistemological position that predated these views, and against which they reacted. The Scholastic agrees with the rationalist that there are necessary metaphysical truths that we can know with certainty, but does not take them to be innate. The Scholastic agrees with the empiricist that all of our concepts must be derived from experience and that our knowledge must be grounded in experience, but he does not accept either the early modern empiricist’s desiccated notion of “experience” or his tendency to collapse intellect into sensation, as e.g. Hume does… . Thus the Scholastic does not accept the basic assumptions that made Kantianism and its contemporary “naturalized” or “descriptive” successors seem the only alternatives to a rationalist or empiricist position. (29)

Act and Potency

Chapter 1 jumps directly in to the Aristotelian theory of act and potency. I will present this aspect of Dr. Feser’s argument in some detail (though certainly not all that he gave it) because it is foundational to the rest of the book. Dr. Feser explains:

The distinction between potency and act is fundamental not only to Thomism but to Scholastic philosophy in general… . It is absolutely crucial to the Scholastic approach to questions about metaphysics of substance, essence, and causation (and for that matter to Scholastic philosophy of nature, philosophical psychology, natural theology, and even ethics). We would do well to begin, then, with an outline of the theory of act and potency. Subsequent sections of this chapter and the next will develop and defend key aspects of the theory as they apply to causation. In later chapters we will see how the theory applies to other metaphysical issues. (31)

He then notes the context out of which this theory developed: the challenges of the Eleatics and Heraclitus on the ideas of change and permanence, and unity and multiplicity. Regarding the first pair, the Eleatics contended change was illusory, based on the principle that nothing can come from nothing, and that anything that was not already real was no-thing at all.(31-32) Feser notes that those making this argument are engaged in a self-contradiction, since making an argument is a kind of change; in other words, change is an evident aspect of reality that needs to be accounted for, not ignored. (32) Aristotle’s resolution of the Eleatic problem was to postulate two modes of being: act and potency. The Philosopher argued there was both “being-in-act, the ways a thing actually is; and … being-in-potency — the ways a thing could potentially be.” (32) The potencies of real objects are not actual, but they are also not nothing; that a round ball has the potential to become flat is a real feature of the ball, even if it is not presently actualized. Thus change is possible because new states of actuality can come from another kind of being, potentiality, rather than nothing. (33) Heraclitus, on the other extreme, famously argued that there is nothing except endless becoming. (33) Aristotle contended this made no sense even on its own terms, since change is always “change toward some outcome, even if only a temporary outcome. The ball melts, but this is… a move in the direction … of new actualities.” (33-34)

On the matter of unity and multiplicity the Eleatics argued there could only be one being. This followed, supposedly, from the logic of distinction: the only thing that could differentiate one being from another would have to be something other than being, but anything that wasn’t being would be no-thing, which couldn’t differentiate anything. (34) The Heraclitean position would entail, if pushed, that there was only multiplicity, that similar objects did not instantiate a common feature. (34) Once again these positions are self-contradictory: the Eleatics want to make a real distinction between the truth and the illusion they are dispelling, and the Heraclitean position is unstatable without appeal to the very commonalities it is denying. (35) And again, Aristotle’s theory of act and potency explains why common-sense beliefs about reality are reasonable: two beings can be differentiated by different potencies (e.g., one ball may be in a drawer while the other is only there potentially). (35) This reasoning supports the Thomistic thesis that potency is the only thing that can account for the limitations of an actual thing; in fact, an external cause can only change a thing if it can potentially be so changed. (37)

Observation of the world requires another distinction, between causal powers and acts of causation. Denying the the reality of powers (potencies to bring about effects) makes it impossible to explain why empowered substances are not always bringing about their effects (e.g., why matchheads can be unlit), and how causes can bring about real changes at all. (42-43) Further, if we made no distinction between substances and their powers, we could not explain why powers are distinct (e.g., sight and hearing can be exercised separately, but this would be impossible if they were really identical with a single actual thing). (78)


Chapter 2 continues with discussion of causation, proceeding to what Dr. Feser calls the two “extrinsic” kinds of causes, final and efficient causality. (160) Observation of the world requires us to posit final causes as real; as Thomas argued, intrinsic aim toward a determinate end is the only way to explain how efficient causes have only a certain range of possible effects, (93) and provides the reason why causes necessitate their effects. (95)

In relation to efficient causality Dr. Feser defends the “principle of causality”: “nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.” (105) That is, since potency qua potency is not actual, it can’t do anything. (105) One argument Dr. Feser contributes for this principle is from the similar principle of sufficient reason, which I have noted on this blog before. (144) He also stresses that causes properly speaking are simultaneous with their effects, though the event of causation is not necessarily instantaneous. “The basic idea is that to cause is just to produce an effect, and it makes no sense to think of a cause producing without its effect being produced… .“ (146) Further, the famous billiard ball example does not refute this point:

For instance, to say that the motion of billiard ball A caused the later motion of billiard ball B is not quite right, for A’s motion could have stopped before A had any causal influence on B, and B’s motion may or may not continue regardless of the continued presence of A. It is only at the point of impact that there really is any causation going on… (146-7)

From this point another follows: instrumental causes in the strict sense cannot be infinite in number. Otherwise, as Sertillanges (quoted by Dr Feser) quips, you might as well say “that a brush can paint by itself, provided it has a very long handle.” (152) And this fact entails the existence of God, for it requires the existence of pure actuality as the foundation for actualized potency. If potencies must be actualized by actual things, if all limitations of being depend on potencies, and if there cannot be an infinite series of instrumental actualizers, then ultimately we must conclude to the existence of actus purus. Dr. Feser explains that when scholastics call God the First Cause, “[w]hat they mean is that as pure actuality he has absolutely underived causal power whereas all other things have their causal power in only a derivative way, with God being the source from which they ultimately derive it.” (154) Finally, Dr. Feser contends that the Principle of Causality entails the Principle of Proportionate Causality, for “If there were some aspect of an effect that didn’t come from its total cause, then that would involve a potency that was actualized without anything doing the actualizing… .” (155)


From extrinsic principles of being, Chapter 3 turns to arguments for the intrinsic principles, formal and material causes. (160) Dr. Feser explains that “[m]atter is, essentially, that which needs actualizing in change; form is, essentially, that which results from the actualization.” (161) One argument for the reality of matter and form comes from the nature of change: e.g., ink in a dry-erase marker has one form (the form of ink in a container), but when it is pressed onto a board it takes on another (e.g., the form of a circle, etc.). (161) What exists to be changed from one form into another is matter, and the different patterns it takes on are different forms. (161) Matter cannot exist apart from form (matter without any characteristics would not exist), but the two are really distinct: matter can take on different forms, and the same form can be instantiated in different parcels of matter. (163)

Formal causes have two types, substantial and accidental. Objects with substantial form are natural objects, which have intrinsic sources of change and stability; these involve intrinsic aim toward specific ends. (169) Accidental forms are extrinsically imposed forms; Dr. Feser gives the example of weaving vines into a hammock. (165)

One interesting challenge to hylemorphism as Dr. Feser has defended it is from materialist metaphysics, which tend today to argue that nothing is real except fundamental physical particles. (178) But reality does not behave in this way; one argument for this conclusion comes through David Oderberg, who points out that if water contained actual hydrogen it would be flammable, and if it contained actual oxygen it would boil at -180 degrees celsius. These properties are definitive of these elements, but are not present in water. The reason why is that they are only virtually present, in that they are potentially recoverable from water. (178-179) The implication here is that higher level substances like water are real, with their own distinct properties. All of reality cannot be reduced to fundamental particles.

In connection with hylemorphism Dr. Feser also contends for the distinction between substance and accidents. (189) He argues that substances cannot exist without accidents, for if substance is “the principle by which two or more objects are distinct”, then it has the accident of being so characterized, and so must have at least one accident. (194) On the other hand, he argues there can’t be accidents without substances, for without substance one can’t identify the accidents:

The yellowness of this lump of gold is for the bundle theory different from the yellowness of that lump… . But what makes them different? The only answer seems to be that they belong to different bundles. Yet the bundles themselves are to be identified by reference to the accidents that make them up. Hence the bundle theory seems afflicted by a vicious circularity. (196)

Essence and Existence

In the final Chapter Dr. Feser discusses essence and existence. Regarding the first, he writes “[t]he essence of a thing is its nature, that whereby it is what it is.” (211) With material things, the essence of a substance includes its matter, since matter is required for its operations; this is not so with immaterial substances. (211) Dr. Feser comments that the arguments of the last three chapters of the book are indirect support for the reality of essence, for if things have substantial forms, and if because they do they have irreducible causal powers, and if those powers are aimed at certain effects, then denying the reality of essence makes little sense. (215)

From this point he turns toward alternatives to realism about essences, particularly nominalism, conceptualism, and empiricism. One criticism he gives of conceptualism is as follows: conceptualists argue essences are only concepts in the mind, not facts about reality. But in order to explain how our mind received these concepts, this theory will have to appeal to things like “causes” “ideas” “organs”, etc.; distinctive versions might add causal accounts derived from Marxism, Darwinism, postmodern cultural criticism, etc. But for these to actually explain the origin of our concepts these things must be real, and so be things with real characteristics, real essences. Further even the laws of logic themselves are presupposed and are also universals. This argument suffices to refute nominalism, which is even more problematic. (225)

With all of what has been said so far, Dr. Feser contends scholastic metaphysics implies a method for discovering essences:

For example, in the case of a living thing, if a certain accident is very widespread in living things of the kind in question and is only absent in cases where the living thing is damaged and/or where the absence is associated with what on independent grounds we can judge to be dysfunction, then we have good reason to judge that the accident in question is a proper accident or property and thus flows from the thing’s essence. Thus we are not reduced to the circular reasoning of saying that such-and-such really are properties because normal members of the kind have them, and these members of the kind are normal ones because they have such-and-such properties. It would be ridiculous to allege that only circular reasoning could lead us to say that having eyeballs (for example) is a genuine property of human beings rather than merely a contingent accident. For having eyeballs is almost universal to human beings, human beings who lack eyeballs are severely impaired in their various basic activities, and the absence of eyeballs is typically the result of fairly easily specifiable damage of a physical or genetic sort. … Still, this shows that judgments about essence are fallible and may require much empirical investigation for their justification … . (235)

Later in the chapter he defends the reality of the distinction between essence and existence. He explains that the distinction between act and potency entails it, because essence is a kind of potency, and existence a kind of act. (242) But he also gives further arguments, one of which is that if we collapse essence into existence we must say there are only concrete things and so deny universals, and if we collapse existence into essence we have to deny there are concrete things to know. Knowing the real world as we experience it demands this distinction, then. (255-256)

Summary Remarks

My survey of Dr. Feser’s argument will end here, with one observation. The general force of his argument shows that as the early moderns jettisoned aspects of the scholastic system they tended toward incoherence and absurdity, and insofar as contemporary figures are attempting to think their way out of this incoherence and absurdity, they are returning to the scholastic position. In my survey I have skipped over a great number of the interactions this book engages in with non-scholastic philosophers past and present, but as the book goes on the drift begins to feel more like an avalanche.

The Importance of the Book

Perhaps readers at this point will wonder what value this book might have for those interested in classical Protestantism. It is only barely about theology, and it is written by a Roman Catholic Thomist. What value does it have for Reformed thinkers and adherents? The value, I would say, appears both in its method and in its content.

Methodologically, Scholastic Metaphysics represents a careful engagement with the arguments of thinkers past and present related to the philosophia perennis. This includes thinkers like: the Eleatics, Heraclitus, Scotus, Ockham, Saurez, Locke, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Armstrong, the Churchlands, Ellis, Kenny, Krauss, Lewis Nagel, Popper, Quine, Putnam, Lewis, Frege, Wittgenstein, four dimensionalists, atomists, dispositionalists, new essentialists, and many others. The work thus represents the patience and intellectual responsibility that all virtuous thinkers should strive to have. Further, insofar as it argues for a return to scholastic metaphysics, especially Thomism, it is certainly an exercise in returning to the historical sources of the Christian faith (and even, to some degree, sources of the Reformed faith). And the book engages in painstaking attempts to maintain clarity, from countless illustrative examples to a host of exercises in defining terms.

Substantively, the book is relevant to three urgently relevant themes: natural theology, natural knowledge, and natural law.

Natural Theology

Among evangelicals today, the most popular arguments for God’s existence tend to be C.S. Lewis’ moral argument, William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, William Paley’s teleological argument, and Cornelius Van Til’s transcendental argument. But these arguments have not always been the mainstays of apologetics. Thomas Aquinas’ five ways for knowing the existence of God are different than all of them, and despite being less popular in the present, are arguably more powerful than these alternatives (though one could make the case that versions of them could be derived from the five ways, too). But to see them as persuasive one has to have accepted something like Aristotle’s “common sense” metaphysic; unfortunately, contemporary Western people have a schizophrenic relationship to common sense.

Nevertheless, the arguments that Dr. Feser gives in this book could well function as intellectual therapy for this malady. Of course, there is always the possibility of people willfully refusing the deliverances of these arguments, but not everyone is so wilful, as Calvin’s observation makes clear. And in fact, not everyone has rejected common sense. Most people continue to operate as if things like the principle of causality, and the reality of permanence and change, unity and multiplicity, are true. People do not always reflect upon the implications of these principles for theology, but charitable conversation in pursuit of the truth can draw them out; and in fact, on some level people seem to have reached the conclusion already.

Natural theology has relevance beyond apologetics with secular people, too. Classical theism has its opponents even within the company of Christians. Such opponents seem plentiful these days: neo-Palamites implicitly denying divine simplicity (i.e., that God is actus purus), social trinitarians denying historic monotheism, process theologians and theistic personalists positing a changing God, and various Christological aberrations with a tenuous relation to Chalcedon’s Definition. Even some otherwise conservative evangelical and Reformed thinkers have attempted to supplant the classical position with significantly modified pictures of God, denying doctrines such as atemporality, immutability, simplicity, omniscience, comprehensive sovereignty, the essential nature of the Persons, or making the divine essence a sort of logical genus comprehending three distinct minds or substances. What all such modern theologies tend to have in common is a denial of one point or another of scholastic metaphysics, and for that reason end up departing from the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy. More specifically, they all tend to cast God as a being with potency; what this implies is that from the beginning God was a composite of actuality and potentiality. This in turn raises the question: what more fundamental metaphysical cause holds God’s composite being together? More could be said here, but the larger point is that while there are various ways of replying to these revisionist doctrines, defending the metaphysical inheritance upon which they were constructed can help reach the heart of some matters quite effectively.

Natural Knowledge

I have not seen theologians often note this, but nominalism as a doctrine bears a strong resemblance to the ancient philosophy (or anti-philosophy) of the Sophists. That is, in both cases, reality has no objective characteristics; all descriptions are merely a human imposition upon the world. In other words, man is the measure of all things. It is not surprising, then, that a return to nominalism in the late medieval period ultimately gave us a David Hume, whom Elizabeth Anscombe called a “mere — brilliant — Sophist”. The psychological connection between the various types of errors are natural. If we deny the reality of universals, we in turn will come to miss the distinction between images of concrete things in our mind and the universal concepts they signify. These mistakes then make us blind to the reality of metaphysical realities like causation, because they are not subsumable under things perceived with the five senses. The loss of these realities finally leads us to utter skepticism, since knowledge is in its deepest sense about causes.

The desire to save knowledge can lead to various stopgap salvage attempts. Kantian transcendentalism is one example. Being something of a conceptualist, Kant argued universals were imposed upon the world by the mind, but that we have no knowledge of things in themselves. As some critics have pointed out, Kant’s correlative coherentism about truth in fact simply changes the subject. It is not that Kant has shown the skeptical conclusion wrong; rather, he has decided to stop talking about knowing the real world, as common sense with its correspondence “theory” of truth seeks to do. Kant’s particular account of knowledge has not captured the market, however, and many have sought to show that what Kant considered universal mental categories were in fact socially and historically constructed. Thus argue schools like Marxism and various “postmodernisms”. All of these positions fight, sometimes viciously, against each other, but what they all tend to have in common is a denial of scholastic metaphysics.

In religious communities, attempts to shield matters of faith from the acids of skepticism have led to what Bartley called “the retreat to commitment”. Examples of this move in the Reformed tradition can be seen in Karl Barth, various Neocalvinists, and various kinds of presuppositionalism in the stream of Cornelius Van Til. (Other Christian traditions have their own variations on the theme.) They all have their differences, but once again what they seem to have in common is either a rejection of our capacity to know, or else a rejection of the reality itself, of universals in the world. There are no “brute facts”; there are only interpreted facts. In other words, as Kant taught us, things only appear to fall into universal categories because we have our lenses on. They’re not there, in things, to be perceived by natural reason.

It is hard not to sympathize with those attempting to hold on to their faith; but there is a better way than retreat. We can challenge the problem at its source, in the return to Sophistry that nominalism brought about.

Of course not all contemporaries have followed the logic of nominalism into complete skepticism; some intellectuals instead are attracted to the vehement materialism of public thinkers like Richard Dawkins. But this road is ultimately a dead end. There are good philosophical reasons to consider materialism and scientism to be ultimately incoherent and even destructive of the very science that they value so highly. In fact, as Dr. Feser argues throughout the book, the actual methods and successes of real world science seems to ultimately presuppose scholastic metaphysics. Materialists fail to see this not because the arguments for it are poor. Rather, they are “[h]ypnotized by the unparalleled predictive and technological successes of modern science, [and] they infer that scientism must be true, and that anything that follows from scientism — however fantastic or even seemingly incoherent — must also be true.” (21) But being hypnotized is not necessarily an incurable condition. Dialogue with people need not end because they are in error; rather, that provides the reason to continue, as long as both parties are willing. And sometimes conversation can work. On a similar note, C.S. Lewis once said:

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

One could fairly describe the apologetics of Lewis as an attempt to break the anti-theistic and anti-Christian spell that has descended upon our civilization. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, his method for doing so was to point people back to reality, to facts about our nature, or the nature of the cosmos, which these spells tried to conceal. In other words, he thought and argued like a scholastic metaphysician. If we wonder whether such an approach could be effective, we need only consider the positive effects his work has had, and continues to have to this day.

Natural Law

The story we told about epistemology could be repeated for the field of ethics. Just as the rejection of formal causality (realism about universals) led to skepticism, so ethicists like Alasdair MacIntyre have contended the rejection of final causality (realism about teleology) has led to ethical nihilism, wherein bare wills meet other wills without any higher law above them. The road by which our culture reached this conclusion was long, with many attempts to exit before the final destination. There were various off-ramps–divine command theory, Kantian deontology, several flavours of utilitarianism–but all returned to the same cul-de-sac, as each school could point out how the others functionally made ethics arbitrary or obviously immoral, out of accord with ethical common sense.

The root of this problem is in the original turn from reality. Ethicists stopped taking our real divinely created nature (our essence) with its real teleology (what it is aimed towards as its natural good) as their standard, and attempted to come up with alternatives. Once again, Lewis:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

Scholastic metaphysics provides the alternative to rebellion in the theoretical register. My survey of Dr. Feser’s book above highlighted one section where he derived from his metaphysics a method for investigating essences; in effect, when applied to the realm of the human essence, this is the foundation of accurate ethical theory. We can discover the essence, and so the purpose, of the human being by observation and reasoning, and from there determine what kinds of conditions and behaviours prevent us from reaching that end. In this way we can discover and acknowledge the entirety of the human good, and therefore avoid arbitrariness and gross immorality in our ethics.

When we turn to particular aspects of the human good, we find more specific moral principles. Among these would include the natural principles of justice and of sex, relevant to debates in the church and the world today: disputes about marriage, gender, children, family, war, abortion, capital punishment, property, and likely any other hot-button political issue one could think of. It perhaps does not need to be said, but I will note it anyway, that the positions of the Reformed tradition on these matters align with the natural law reasoning that the tradition gave about them. A return to that reasoning, therefore, can provide Reformed Christians with further resources for discussion about these matters.

Nature and Grace

The book’s implications for analyses of human nature necessarily affect another topic: the character of divine grace. In accord with the Christian scholastic tradition, the Reformed tradition historically affirmed Aquinas’ famous dictum that grace perfects nature, and does not destroy it. The nature in question is human nature, the human essence. Of course, the relation of grace to nature is also a place where classical Reformed Protestants and other kinds of scholastics part ways, and with good reason. The Reformed argue that they have more accurately described what revelation tells us about how God graciously relates to creatures, and so departed from other positions on grace. Yet this move did not result in a rejection of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature; in fact, seventeenth century Protestant thinkers spent a great deal of energy expounding the Bible’s doctrine of grace in the rational categories of scholasticism. This is largely also true of the sixteenth century Reformers like Calvin, Vermigli, Hooker, and even Luther. It is common today for Protestant theologians to regard this as dispensable historical arcana, but such a rejection assumes that Aristotelian categories are themselves dispensable. But what if the basic outline of that metaphysics is not an arbitrary imposition upon reality, but an accurate description of reality itself? Then contemporary theologians would need to do the same thing the Protestant scholastics did; and in fact, it would mean the scholastics could probably help us with such a task, since they have thought a great deal about it. The result, then, of accepting scholastic metaphysics is that we would find new value in many of our Reformed ancestors’ works.


There’s much more one could say both about Dr. Feser’s book and about its implications, but this will have to suffice for the present. I hope I have shown both the quality of the book itself, and the value it can have for those sympathetic with the perspective of TCI. If I had to sum these points up, I would say the following. Scholastic Metaphysics is a well written defense of common sense beliefs about the nature of reality itself, and if read carefully, will probably persuade many. Establishing the veracity of this metaphysic entails supporting classical theism, the reality of universals, the efficacy of natural reason, and the normativity of natural law. In turn, when held along with the teaching of special revelation, supporting these doctrines means supporting something like the tradition of classical Reformed Protestantism, since it was formed out of a synthesis of these two streams.

Or to put it even more briefly: scholastic metaphysics is part of classical Reformed Protestantism. To defend the former is to support an important part of the latter. For those interested in such a goal, this book will be a valuable tool.

7 replies on “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction”

One claim Feser, amongst others, has made is that Aristotle’s metaphysics was never refuted in the early modern period, it was simply discarded along with his refuted physics. What’s your thoughts on that?

That’s admittedly a complicated issue, and I’m sure experts on the various modern thinkers would have different views, but from the evidence Feser has provided and from my reading of the “big names” over the years, I would agree with that claim. At the same time, while it’s becoming fashionable for (especially Roman Catholic) conservatives to blame Locke and the moderns for our current political problems, I’m actually more interested in retrieving their political insights than abandoning them. All that to say IMHO we should be careful not to chuck the moderns on all matters just because they (probably) made a mistake on metaphysics. FWIW.

Anthony Kenny is another that says something similar about Aristotle and Aquinas. He’s not quite as earnest about it as Feser is but it is significant that an agnostic, and former priest, such as Kenny makes the allowance.

My sense is that scholastic metaphysics was not directly refuted by the early-moderns. I say sense, because I don’t know the primary literature well enough. It’s rather a case, as you note, of epistemological developments making SM seem implausible. But this is only partly true. To some there appeared to be difficulties with Aristotelianism and what they thought was essential to Christianity, the immorality of the soul being one example. Of course Feser addresses that particular issue in his writings but, rightly or wrongly, it was an issue of debate. What worries me is the flattening of the history to fit into the kind of narratives you allude to; Locke and modernity, nominalism and modernity and so on.

Yes, and he mentions examples like Molière’s joke about the “dormitive power” of opium. So there were some objections, for sure. And I concur with your concern about flattening history.

Great review. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve been doing a Directed Study course this summer on the Metaphysics of Aquinas using this book as a text, along with John Wippel’s book. Feser is a clear thinker and a terrific writer. I completely concur with your assessment of the importance of scholastic metaphysics for Protestant theology today. Classical theism is generated out of Nicene theology and there is a direct line from the fourth century Cappadocians to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin in terms of the doctrine of God and the metaphysics that are needed to express that doctrine coherently. I also agree with your discussion of Nominalism and how it leads to Hume. If Western philosophy did go off course by rejecting reality itself in the early modern period, then the eventual emergence of a sophist like Hume was inevitable and the next logical step was postmodern nihilism. I believe that systematic theology is doomed to irrelevance and incoherence unless it returns to scholastic philosophy as its working partner in the task of describing the nature of God, man and the world. Thanks again for writing this.

Dr. Carter,

Great to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words. Yes, I think you’ve hit upon two of the most important implications of the revival of scholastic metaphysics: fixing theology and providing a better answer to erroneous cultural commonplaces. And I’m glad to hear undergraduates wish to study the metaphysics of Aquinas!

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