Boethius, on the hierarchy of powers of knowing

There are a few paragraphs below that summarize Boethius’ notions of the human knower from his The Consolation of Philosophy. I’m saving these to work towards a critique of theology’s notion of “Reason” that I’m working on. It is very interesting that his ideas cohere nicely with both Aristotle and Descartes (800 years prior and 800 years later).

“Let me illustrate with a brief example: the roundness of a body is known in one way by the sense of touch and in another by sight. The sight remaining at a distance, takes in the whole body at once by its reflected rays; but the touch makes direct contact with the sphere and comprehends it piecemeal by moving around its surface. A man himself is comprehended in different ways by the senses, imagination, reason, and intelligence. The senses grasp the figure of the thing as it is constituted in matter; the imagination, however, grasps the figure alone without the matter. Reason, on the other hand, goes beyond this and investigates by universal consideration the species itself which is in particular things. The vision of intelligence is higher yet, and it goes beyond the bounds of the universe and sees with the clear eye of the min the pure form itself. 110-11

“In all this we chiefly observe that the higher power of knowing includes the lower, but the lower can in no way rise to the higher. For the senses achieve nothing beyond the material the imagination cannot grasp universal species reason cannot know simple forms; but the intelligence, as though looking down from no high, conceives the underlying forms and distinguishes among them all but in the same way in which it comprehends the form itself which cannot be known to any other power.” 111

“Do you see, then, how all these use their own power in knowing rather than the powers of the objects which are known? And this is proper, for since all judgment is in the act of the one judging, it is necessary that everyone should accomplish his own action by his own power, not by the power of something other than himself.” 111


“Long ago the philosophers of the Porch at Athens, old men who saw things dimly, believed that sense impressions and images were impressed on the mind by external objects, just as then they used to mark letters on a blank page of wax with their quick pens. But if the active mind can discover nothing by its own powers, and merely remains passively subject to the impressions of external bodies, like a mirror reflecting the empty shapes of other things, where does that power come from that dwells in souls and sees all things? What is that power which perceives individual things and, by knowing them, can distinguish among them? What is the power which puts together again the parts it has separated and, pursuing its due course, lifts its gaze to the highest things, then descends again to the lowest, then returns to itself to refute false ideas with truth?

“This is a more effective, and a much more powerful cause than any which merely receives impressions from material things. Still, the sense impression comes first, arousing and moving the powers of the soul in the living body. When light strikes the eye, or sound the ears, the aroused power of the mind calls into action the corresponding species which it holds within, joining them to the outward signs and mixing images with the forms it has hidden in itself.” 112


“Thus, in the case of sentient bodies external stimuli affect the sense organs, and a physical sensation precedes the activity of the mind, calling the mind to act upon itself and in this way to activate the interior forms which before were inactive. Now if, as I say, in sentient bodies the soul is affected by external bodies but judges these stimuli presented to the body not passively, but by virtue of its own power, how much more do intelligences which are wholly free from all bodily affections use the power of the mind rather than objects extrinsic to themselves in arriving at judgments. According to this principle, various and different substances having different ways of knowing. There are certain immobile living things which are without any means of knowing other than by sense impressions. Shellfish and other forms of marine life which are nourished as they stick to rocks are creatures of this kind. Beasts which have the power of motion, on the other hand, have the impulse to seek and avoid certain things and they have imagination. But reason is characteristic of the human race alone just as pure intelligence belongs to God alone.” 112-13

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