Garrigou-Lagrange and the Matter of Infinite Causal Regress

0. In “Two Questions re Thomistic Metaphysics. A Plea for Their Answers,” my post of June 4, 2014, I noted:

I am in the process of preparing myself, and hardly for the first time, for an effort at coming to a determination of whether the arguments for the existence of God set forth by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae are valid and sound, valid but unsound, or simply invalid. As the first step in the process, I have begun a systematic study of the thought of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. I am currently reading and rereading the early chapters of his Reality. A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought.*

Since then I have decided to read Reality in the French original, the title of which is La synthèse thomiste.**

In the present post I will first offer a translation of the following passage from La synthèse thomiste, a passage in which the thesis, central to Thomism, is asserted that an infinite regress in a series of “necessarily subordinated” causes is impossible. I will then reflect on some issues related to Garrigou-Lagrange’s use of the words “actuels” and “actuellement.” Finally, I will ask, and answer negatively, the question of whether the passage has rendered evident the thesis just mentioned, that an infinite regress in a series of “necessarily subordinated” causes is impossible.

1. The passage at hand, then, reads:

La Physique s’achève (l. VII et VIII) par l’exposé des deux principes qui prouvent l’existence de Dieu, premier moteur immobile : tout mouvement suppose un moteur et l’on ne peut procéder à l’infini dans la série des moteurs actuels qui sont nécessairement subordonnés. Il ne répugnerait pas de remonter à l’infini dans la série des moteurs passés accidentellement subordonnés, comme la série des générations humaines ou animales. Mais actuellement il faut un centre d’énergie, un premier moteur, sans quoi le mouvement lui-même est inexplicable. Nous disons de même aujourd’hui : le navire est porté par les flots, les flots par la terre, la terre par le soleil, mais on ne peut aller à l’infini, il faut actuellement un premier moteur immobile, qui ne doive son activité qu’à lui-même, qui soit l’agir même, et Acte pur, car l’agir suppose l’être, et le mode d’agir par soi suppose l’Être par soi.

2. I translate the passage:

The Physics [of Aristotle] concludes (Books VII and VIII) with the exposition of the two principles which prove the existence of God, the first immobile mover: every movement presupposes a mover and one cannot proceed to infinity in the series of actual [translating “actuels”] movers which are necessarily subordinated. There would be nothing repugnant in a going back infinitely in the series of past movers accidentally  subordinated, like the series of the generations of humans or animals. But actually [translating “actuellement”] a center of energy, a first mover, without which the movement itself is impossible, is necessary. We speak similarly today: the ship is carried by the tides, the tides by the earth, the earth by the sun, but one cannot go on infinitely, a first mover is actually [translating “actuellement”] necessary, which derives its activity from itself alone, which is action itself, and pure Act, for acting presupposes being, and the mode of self-acting presupposes self-Being.

3. Some preliminary commentary may be worthwhile. First, Garrigou-Lagrange holds that the existence of God can be proven, without qualification. Second, he holds that the two principles set forth, that every movement presupposes a mover and that one cannot proceed to infinity in the series of actual movers which are necessarily subordinated, provide that proof. Now, if he had thought that they suffice as the premises for any such proof, he would have been mistaken; Aquinas himself begins the first of his celebrated arguments in the Summa Theologiae for the existence of God with a statement of what I will call the principle of realism in the theory or science of the changing qua changing, that:

There exist at least some changing beings.

In Aquinas’s own words***:

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another….

Let us then proceed under the assumption that Garrigou-Lagrange holds that the two principles are necessary premises for the purported proof, and not sufficient, and that the present text, suggesting the contrary, is but an illustration of the sometimes somewhat offhand manner in which he writes, trusting to the reader to do what is necessary to make the best sense of it.

The third and last of my preliminary comments is the simple observation that my concern in the present post is with the second of the two principles, not with the first; this is not to say that the first does not need some sustained and systematic reflection, but rather that that is the topic of some future post.

4. Now, on to the interpretative nature of the translation. I will preface these reflections with the admission that I take the translation a bit beyond the letter of the text. But I do so for the good reason that the argument presented in the text seems to me to require the translation I offer.

We can begin with a closer look at the French expression of the second of the principles. It reads:

[L]’on ne peut procéder à l’infini dans la série des moteurs actuels qui sont nécessairement subordonnés.

In his translation (Reality, p.6), Patrick Cummins O.S.B. sees the text as saying:

In a series of acting movers, necessarily subordinated, we cannot regress to infinity, but must come to a first.

I am not troubled by the insertion of the “must come to a first” here, for Garrigou-Lagrange almost immediately does go on to say, “il faut actuellement un premier moteur immobile” or, in my translation, “a first mover is actually [translating “actuellement”] necessary.”

The rendering of “moteurs actuels” as “acting movers” is, however, more an interpretation, even if still a reasonable one, than, strictly speaking, a translation. Indeed several alternative translations quickly suggest themselves. The one is the straightforward “actual movers.” The second, however, “present movers,” has two advantages over the first. The one is that the use of “present” as the translation of “actuels” (or “actuel”) seems to represent the most common translation of the word. The other is that it accords with the contrast which Garrigou-lagrange is setting up between the “moteurs actuels” of the sentence just reread and the “moteurs passés,” or “past movers,” of the immediately following sentence:

Il ne répugnerait pas de remonter à l’infini dans la série des moteurs passés accidentellement subordonnés, comme la série des générations humaines ou animales.

or:

There would be nothing repugnant in a going back infinitely in the series of past movers accidentally  subordinated, like the series of the generations of humans or animals.

A third possible translation of “actuels” is suggested by the “actuellement” of the next sentence.

Mais actuellement il faut un centre d’énergie, un premier moteur, sans quoi le mouvement lui-même est inexplicable.

I translated this earlier as:

But actually [translating “actuellement”] a center of energy, a first mover, without which the movement itself is inexplicable, is necessary.

I will, however, offer another translation of this “actuellement,” admittedly not one often encountered, “concurrently.” Thus:

But concurrently a center of energy, a first mover, without which the movement itself is inexplicable, is necessary.

The third possible translation of “actuels” is, then, “concurrent.” That is, I believe, Garrigou-Lagrange’s thought is that any and all causes, causes actually causing, must be concurrent with, in some sense of “concurrent with,” that which is being caused. In contrast, the causes within a series of “accidentally subordinated past movers,” such as the series of my ancestors, need not be thus concurrent; my grandfathers and grandmothers, of fond memory, are currently playing no active causal role in my continuing existence.

The “actuellement” of the “il faut actuellement un premier moteur immobile” of the passage’s last sentence could too be translated “concurrently,” thus giving us “a first immobile mover is concurrently necessary.”

5. Now, then, on to the question, and its negative answer, of whether the passage has rendered evident the thesis that an infinite regress in a series of “necessarily subordinated” causes is impossible. First, an observation: the passage under examination recognizes that an infinite regress of causes is not as such logically “repugnant,” for it admits the possibility of an infinite regress of “accidentally subordinated past movers” (“moteurs passés accidentellement subordonnés”). If, then, the thesis that an infinite regress in a series of “necessarily subordinated” causes is impossible is to be rendered evident, it must be demonstrated that, while an infinite regress of accidentally subordinated past movers is possible, an infinite regress of necessarily subordinated and therefore concurrently actual movers is impossible. But the passage has thus far not provided any such demonstration; it has not even offered an argument to that effect. In other words, though the passage has asserted that “l’on ne peut procéder à l’infini dans la série des moteurs actuels qui sont nécessairement subordonnés,” that is, “one cannot proceed to infinity in the series of actual [translating “actuels”] movers which are necessarily subordinated,” it has not thus far demonstrated the truth of that proposition.

6. One may want to point out that the passage has yet more to say, that:

Nous disons de même aujourd’hui : le navire est porté par les flots, les flots par la terre, la terre par le soleil, mais on ne peut aller à l’infini, il faut actuellement un premier moteur immobile….

or:

We speak similarly today: the ship is carried by the tides, the tides by the earth, the earth by the sun, but one cannot go on infinitely, a first mover is actually [translating “actuellement”] necessary….

We can see therein an illustration, that of the ship and the tides, etc., and that which the illustration is meant to illustrate. The latter may be the thesis advanced as the conclusion of the following argument:

It is impossible to regress infinitely in movers.

Therefore, a first mover is actually necessary.

I did substitute “regress,” or “go back,” for his “aller,” i.e., “go” or “go on”; I see that as only helping in the expression of the argument he needs.

I am not being overly generous in accepting the argument as valid, if overly brief in statement; suitably expanded, it would yield the given conclusion. But its soundness remains in question, for the truth of its premise, that “it is impossible to regress infinitely in movers,” is not immediately evident and it has not, at least thus far in La synthèse thomiste, been demonstrated. The truth of its conclusion therefore remains in question.

7. Of course, that the thesis, “it is impossible to regress infinitely in movers,” has not been demonstrated thus far in in La synthèse thomiste does not mean that it has not been demonstrated elsewhere, perhaps even later in La synthèse thomiste, though I have not yet discerned such a proof, or, if not there, elsewhere in Garrigou’Lagrange’s work or in the work of some other thinker.

There are arguments, of course, to be found in the Thomistic literature, but I am not yet aware of any that constitute actual proofs. I intend to take up one or two of the most salient in the relatively near future.

Until next time.

* Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Reality. A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, translated by Patrick Cummins, O.S.B. (Ex Fontibus, 2006-2012)

** Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., La synthèse thomiste (Paris: Desclée De Brower et Cie, 1947). The work is available online at:

http://www.thomas-d-aquin.com/Pages/Livre/Garrigou/Synthese_thomiste.pdf

*** Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima pars, Question 2, Article 3, Corpus. For convenience I have here quoted the translation of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province as posted at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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