The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.

  1. Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
  2. There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
  3. Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
  4. Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)

While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.

We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.

The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.

The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.

The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.

This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”

This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.

Descartes: The Movie

The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.

Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.

The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.

Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.

Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):

“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?

Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.

After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”

Stay tuned…


Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.

Main image source:

10 thoughts on “The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

  1. To the author: Marvelous article. I have no philosophy degree, but enjoy dabbling in it. Maybe I’m somewhat of an armchair philosopher – or enjoy consuming philosophy from an armchair…or something like that. Thank you for summarizing/generalizing the basic themes behind the great heresies – very helpful! It certainly seems that a crisis in philosophy and metaphysics (in addition to original sin) is at the root of all our societal and Ecclesial woes. You mentioned proposing possible remedies, and I found the book “She is Our Response,” by Fr. Denis Raymond Lemieux, very helpful in this regard. It uses Pope Benedict XVI’s writings (as Card. Ratzinger) on philosophy and our culture and proposes our Blessed Mother and her qualities (contemplative, joyful, missionary) as the solution and response to Modernity. For your consideration…


  2. Could you elaborate on how you find the connection stemming from Scotus’ works? His focus on freedom stems from two primary understandings: first, his interpretation of Aristotle’s definition of “rational potency” in Meta, IX, 2 (cf. VII, 7); second, his emphasis on the divine freedom qua the liberality of God’s act of creation.

    I find that Scotus often gets unfairly cast as a radical voluntarist due to these two aspects of this thought, as well as the back-and-forth development of his treatment on freedom from his early Lectura, through the Ordinatio, and lastly his Parisian Reportatio. Reading his Disputatio on Aristotle’s metaphysics is edifying in this respect, as it helps to clarify the Aristotelian presuppositions at work in his Franciscan theology (something of a novelty within the Franciscan tradition at the time with its heavy Augustinian-Victorine influence – let us also not forget the influence that the Parisian Condemnations of 1277 had on the whole free-will debate at the time, i.e., liberum arbitrium vs. voluntas. Thomas Aquinas’ work was a notable casualty of those for several centuries, as those in the universities were contained to ).


    1. Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s refreshing to have such a question.

      It seems that Scotus’ dissociation of freedom of the will from its ability to approach the real good is the big take-away for Ockham (who is by far more important for Descartes – and Descartes is really the star of the show, isn’t he…). The attempt to account for a “freer freedom” with the affectio iustitiae on top of affectio commodi sets the ball rolling for the whole dismantling of the holistic philosophical anthropology of Thomas which was able both to be harmonized with a robust metaphysics and to explain Biblical and common sense morality. If freedom is not about human flourishing, then what is it about? Mere choice… And this is mangled over a few hundred years and found in a new form in Sartre, for whom choice basically creates nature, so to speak. I don’t have all the pieces laid out here, but that strain of thought about freedom being MORE than approaching human flourishing is a Big Deal.

      1277, if I remember from my undergraduate days, and my professor was correct, did not stop the professors at Paris from continuing along as usual! Some things never change.

      What do you think?


      1. I think that sounds like some reasonable connection to make, and thank you for the reply! Just a note of fair warning, I am a bit of a Scotus apologist. You never know what you’re getting into on the internet, so I thought I’d put that out there 🙂

        As for Descartes, I am firmly on the “blame Descartes” bandwagon when it comes to all of our (post) modern problems with the autarchic-I and the privileging of narrative over metaphysics (and the disembodiment that comes from placing the will over and against the body). Although I don’t blame Descartes himself, and I rather enjoy his philosophy on its own merits, the inversion that occurs with the Cartesian ‘cogito’ was definitely the watershed moment. Star of the show, indeed!

        I also agree that the idea of human freedom being about more than approaching human flourishing is a big deal. This is particularly true if we extend the idea of flourishing beyond the Greek notion of eudaimonia and apply it to participating that share of the summum bonum found in the beatific vision; however, I also think that it is in this light that one sees Scotus approaching an understanding of human freedom that doubles down on the importance of having a right understanding of philosophical anthropology – contrary to precipitating dismantling the holistic approach of Aquinas.

        If you’re talking simply about the Scotist idea of the synchronic contingency of the will, then yes, I’m with you.

        On balance, I don’t think the idea is too important in Scotus’ thought when it comes to talking about the human will, because he primarily develops it with reference to the divine creative freedom of God (in contrast to any kind of intellectually determined or emanationist understanding of God’s creative action), and then extends the idea to the human will as well as a kind of necessary condition when speaking of rational potency (particularly final-efficient causality). However, this is a significant conceptual innovation because it does mean that, for Scotus, it is possible in principle – even if it would never actually happen in fact – that one enjoying the splendor of participating in the beatific vision would still be free to turn away from it. Perhaps this is what you mean by the separation of Thomas’ holistic vision?

        As I understand Aquinas, one would not be free to turn away from the beatific vision because the will as, a potency, would be perfectly actualized by its end (entelechy) through the act of loving God in the presence of God. Scotus’ question then, is how was this turning away possible in the first place for the fallen angels who were presumably already in the presence of God? He develops the idea of the affectio iusticiae and affectio commodi to try and answer this question in a move that is, I think, distinct from his metaphysics – it is a question of moral psychology. With respect to these moral affections, I think Scotus rightly points out that there is a twofold manner in which something can be loved: according to its benefit for me, or according to its intrinsic (just) value in the order of creation. I don’t think these affections do anything to decouple freedom from flourishing. Rather, they point out that simply seeing and knowing the True Good is insufficient if we love the True Good with only a mercenary love.

        Therefore, for Scotus, human freedom is also about a right-ordering of the human person.

        Lastly, about 1277 – no, it did not stop the philosophers, but it WAS significant for the religious at the universities. Aristotle was first banned at Paris in 1270, but the more comprehensive ban occurred in 1277 after Aquinas’ death. The 1277 ban precipitated the shift from speaking about freedom in terms of voluntas as opposed to liberum arbitrium. I think this is significant for when we arrive at Scotus ~1300, who clearly contextualizes himself in this milieu amidst textual interlocutors such as Siger of Brabant on the Averroist side and Godfrey of Fontaines on the other.

        One must also note that after 1277 Aquinas’ writings were attacked and suppressed because his emphasis on the will following the intellect was too close to the intellectual determinism of the Averroists in Paris and their teachings about how to achieve eudaimonia without any particular need for grace or a Savior. Now, I love Aquinas, and I honestly think he suffered from a case of people less intelligent than himself reading his works and misunderstanding them. Perhaps it’s eisegesis, but this is almost always the tone that I hear in De Malo, 6, where he gives his most thorough treatment of voluntas. It’s almost like he’s saying “Ok, look guys, I’m going to break it down for you here…”


  3. I must confess, you seem to be much more intimately familiar with Scotus than myself. But…

    I’ll zero in just on one part, which I think might help break open the issue – freedom in Heaven. Thomas indeed thinks that we are free to turn away from God in Heaven. The thing is, because we explicitly and completely know that it is our true good to continue to will Beatitude, we WON’T turn away… Just as Christ, in His human nature, has the POWER to sin, He will/did not, because He enjoys the perfect knowledge of what is good. It seems that the fixation of Scotus with “freedom qua choice” is what Ockham picked up, which has found its way into the post-modern scene. What do you think?


  4. Well, I do disagree with that understanding of Thomas. For Thomas, the will wills nothing by necessity except for the final end; in the beatific vision, one has the attainment of the final end, therefore, it is willed necessarily. This is entirely different from the way in which Jesus was capable of choosing to sin, yet did not.

    This is not to say that the power of choice is annihilated in the beatific vision, only that it is impossible within the beatific vision to choose otherwise. Thus, it is incorrect to say that we are free to turn away from God in Heaven – for a number of reasons. We are still truly free in this scenario, however, because for Thomas freedom lies in the relationship between intellect and will more so than what modern thinkers would refer to as the principle of alternative possibilities.

    As for Scotus and Ockham, I guess it’s the phrase ‘the fixation of Scotus with “freedom qua choice” ‘ that I would like to hear more about, as well as how this influences Ockham’s nominalism. I am aware that people have made negative connections between the two, but I have not followed up on researching it until your post re-piqued my interest – so it really is an honest request for elaboration on what you see happening in the history of thought.

    Another reason for the request is that I’m unsure of whether the perceived problem is with Scotus’ presentation of freedom in the human will or with how he presents the Divine freedom in his divine command approach to ethics, because these freedoms are very different for Scotus even though he argues analogously from one to the other (as many scholastics did).


    1. Right – we necessarily will our last end, and once we reach Beatitude, because we sufficiently know that this is true happiness, we must continue to will it. But that is not an outside constraint, of course, but something springing from the nature of the will and Beatitude. I-II Q. 5 a. 4: Secondly, it is again evident if we consider the specific nature of Happiness. For it has been shown above (I-II:3:8) that man’s perfect Happiness consists in the vision of the Divine Essence. Now it is impossible for anyone seeing the Divine Essence, to wish not to see It. Because every good that one possesses and yet wishes to be without, is either insufficient, something more sufficing being desired in its stead; or else has some inconvenience attached to it, by reason of which it becomes wearisome. But the vision of the Divine Essence fills the soul with all good things, since it unites it to the source of all goodness…” So while the power/faculty (let’s not equivocate) to turn away remains (the will itself), that power won’t be used in such a way. It seems even the “freedom qua choice” paradigm isn’t violated by this because of that.

      I’ll dig into Scotus more when I go through existentialism… I think there could be a meaningful lineage back to him. I will count on you for the apologia!


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