The True, the Good, and the Beautiful in Reformed Scholasticism

by Matthew Gaetano

This title is a bit misleading because I only intend to offer brief remarks about Bartholomew Keckermann’s statements about the transcendental properties of being in his Compendious System of the Science of Metaphysics (1611). I hope that it helps to develop the remarks about scholasticism and the Reformed tradition from previous posts.

A Reformed writer, Keckermann (d. 1609) studied at Danzig, Wittenberg, and then at Leipzig. But Reformed students were unwelcome in Lutheran universities after Saxon Electoral Prince Christian I died in 1591. So, Keckermann became part of a “mass exodus” of Reformed students to the University of Heidelberg in 1592.  Keckermann received his M.A. on 27 February 1595 and eventually taught students at lower levels. He also taught Hebrew in Heidelberg’s philosophy faculty. Though he was eventually offered a theology professorship at Heidelberg (and received his degree from that university in 1602), he left for his native Gdańsk and taught at the Academic Gymnasium there until his death in 1609. Many of his famous textbooks come out of his teaching at this school.

But here are a few notes about the transcendentals from his systematic treatment of metaphysics.

First of all, when talking about the “principles” or “modes” of being, Keckermann begins not with truth (as we often do when we talk about the transcendentals) but with unity. For him, the primary properties that flow from being are threefold: unity, truth, and goodness.

Keckermann likes to refer to biblical events or theological concepts to help clarify these difficult ideas for his readers.  When he talks about unity, he refers to Ephesians 4 which states that there is “one faith, one baptism.” The true faith is not something that is vague or confused. Keckermann also mentions God’s creation of all things. This property of being–unity–is “against chaos.”

When he talks about the transcendental, truth, Keckermann mentions 1 John 5, which talks about Jesus as the Son of God and the Son of God as the true God and eternal life. The Logos–the second person of the Trinity–is the true image of God, formed from God Himself. “For,” Keckermann says, “when God forms the image of Himself, He forms God, not an accident because there is no accident in God, as there is in man.” So, when man has an image or a concept, it can be true by being in conformity with the thing in reality. But it is only an “accident” that qualifies the imagination or intellect of the human being. God, however, does not have accidents, so, when he forms an “image” in eternity, this is God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity.

When Keckermann refers to goodness, he refers to Genesis 1, where it says that “God saw what He had made and, behold, all things were very good.” Keckermann insists that this is not a reference to moral or spiritual goodness because heaven, earth, and other inanimate things as well as animate things like plants and beasts are not morally or spiritually good. Keckermann says that the way in which “all things” were “very good” must be a reference to “metaphysical goodness” (35). In other words, all creatures were good by the goodness of essence because they had the very sort of essence which pleased God and which was an effect in conformity with the divine will and which the angels and human beings could desire. (Keckermann also affirms, in this context, the teaching of Augustine and theologians that sin is rightly called “non-being” because every being depends upon and is produced by God. But sin is not produced by God insofar as it is sin. Therefore, it cannot nor ought to be called being, properly speaking.)

Keckermann sees the beautiful (along with perfection) as a secondary mode of being–perhaps by way of contrast (at least semantically) with our modern way of thinking about the transcendentals as the true, good, and beautiful. He defines beauty (pulchritudo) as a mode of being through which being (ens) brings pleasure to the senses, the intellect, and the will. I suspect that part of the reason why our Reformed scholastic sees beauty as secondary is because of his rich understanding of goodness (a primary property or mode). Goodness already indicates the way in which every being is desirable. This limits beauty to bringing out the pleasure (voluptas) of being. Keckermann says, “From this it happens that many goods are judged by us as good which, nonetheless, are not held as beautiful.” At this point, he refers to the a philosopher who was “not lacking in erudition,” John Jandun, a famous Averroist from the early fourteenth century. It seems that Keckermann is saying that, while being is beautiful to the extent that it is capable of pleasing our senses and will, it may be the case that it will take effort for us to move from a recognition of a thing’s goodness to a recognition of a thing’s beauty. He gives the following example: “many studies are good but not yet beautiful. But where the [students] entirely dedicate themselves to [those studies], then those studies–for the first time–become disposed to cause pleasure in the human intellect and will and so become beautiful things” (38).

I’d like to think more about why Keckermann wants to insist that a thing, at least in some sense, becomes beautiful as we “dedicate” ourselves to it. Why is it not the case that the thing is always beautiful and that this dedication simply makes it possible for us to recognize or discover its inherent beauty? It seems that Keckermann wants to insist on beauty being an actual relation between the thing and the one perceiving it. Regardless, I thought that it would be fruitful to offer an early-modern Reformed thinker involved in metaphysical speculation, particularly a reflection on the transcendentals.

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