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The Catholic Encyclopedia
A term employed in modern philosophy with various meanings, but applied generally speaking to the Supreme Being. It signifies (1) that which is complete and perfect; (2) that which exists by its own nature and is consequently independent of everything else; (3) that which is related to no other being; (4) the sum of all being, actual and potential (Hegel).
In the first and the second of these significations the Absolute is a name for God which Christian philosophy may readily accept. Though the term was not current in the Middle Ages, equivalent expressions were used by the Scholastic writers in speaking, e.g. of God as Pure Actuality (Actus Purus), as uncaused Being, or as containing pre-eminently every perfection. St. Thomas, in particular, emphasizes the absoluteness of God by, showing that he cannot be classed under any genus or species, and that His essence is identical with His existence. Aquinas also anticipates the difficulties which arise from the use of the term Absolute in the sense of unrelated being, and which are brought out quite clearly in modern discussions, notably in that between Mill, as critic of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy, and Mansel as its defender. It was urged that the Absolute could not consistently be thought of or spoken of as First Cause, for the reason that causation implies relation, and the Absolute is outside of all relation; it cannot, therefore, be conceived as producing effects. St. Thomas, however, offered a solution. He holds that God and created things are related, but that the relation is real in the effects only. It implies no conditioning or modification of the Divine Being; it is in its application to, God merely conceptual. The fashion of our thought obliges us to conceive God as one term of a relation, but not to infer that the relation affects Him as it affects the created thing which is the other term. This distinction, moreover, is based on experience. The process of knowledge involves a relation between the known object and, the knowing subject, but the character of the relation is not the same in both terms. In the mind it is real because perception and thought imply the exercise of mental faculties, and consequently a modification of the mind itself. No such modification, however, reaches the object; this is the same whether we perceive it or not.
Now it is just here that a more serious difficulty arises. It is claimed that the Absolute can neither be known nor conceived. "To think is to condition"; and as the Absolute is by its very nature unconditioned, no effort of thought can reach it. To say that God is the Absolute is equivalent to saying that He is unknowable. This view, expressed by Hamilton and Mansel, and endorsed by Spencer in his "First Principles", affords an apparently strong support to Agnosticism, while it assails both the reasonableness and the possibility of religion. It is only a partial reply to state that God, though incomprehensible, is nevertheless knowable according to the manner and capacity of our intelligence. The Agnostic contends that God, precisely because He is the Absolute, is beyond the range of any knowledge whatever on our part. Agnosticism, in other words, insists that we must believe in the existence of an absolute and infinite Being and at the same time warns us that we can have no idea of that Being. Our belief must express itself in terms that are meaningless. To avoid this conclusion one may reject altogether a term out of which all significance has evaporated; or (and this seems a wiser course) one may retrace the genesis of the term and hold fast to the items of knowledge, however imperfect and however in need of criticism, which that genesis involves. In proving the existence of God as First Cause, or as Absolute Being, we take as our starting-point facts that are knowable and known. So far as, in reasoning upon these facts, we are led beyond them to the concept of an Absolute, some remnant of the knowableness which facts present must be found in that which is the ultimate explanation of the facts. If, as Spencer affirms, "every one of the arguments by which the relativity of our knowledge is demonstrated distinctly postulates the positive existence of something beyond the relative", it follows that by getting clearly before our thought the meaning of those arguments and their force for distinctly postulating we must obtain some knowledge of the Being whose existence is thus established. Spencer, indeed, does not realize the full import of the words "positive existence", "ultimate reality", and "incomprehensible power", which he uses so freely. Otherwise he could not consistently declare that the Being to which these various predicates apply is unknowable. It is in fact remarkable that so much knowledge of the Absolute is displayed in the attempt to prove that the Absolute cannot be known. Careful analysis of a concept like that of First Cause certainly shows that it contains a wealth of meaning which forbids its identification with the Unknowable, even supposing that the positive existence of the Unknowable could be logically demonstrated. Such an analysis is furnished by St. Thomas and by other representatives of Christian philosophy. The method which St. Thomas formulated, and which his successors adopted, keeps steadily in view the requirements of critical thinking, and especially the danger of applying the forms of our human knowledge, without due refinement, to the Divine Being. The warning against our anthropomorphic tendency was clearly given before the Absolute had taken its actual place in philosophic speculation, or had yielded that place to the Unknowable. While this warning is always needful, especially in the interest of religion, nothing can be gained by the attempt to form a concept of God which offers a mere negation to thought and to worship. It is of course equally futile to propose an unknowable Absolute as the basis of reconciliation between religion and science. The failure of Spencer's philosophy in this respect is the more disastrous because, while it allows full scope to science in investigating the manifestations of the Absolute, it sets aside the claim of religion to learn anything of the power which is thus manifested. (See AGNOSTICISM, ASEITY, ANALOGY, GOD, KNOWLEDGE, THEOLOGY. For Hegel's conception of the Absolute, see HEGELIANISM, IDEALISM, PANTHEISM.)
SCHUMACHER, The Knowableness of God (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1905), contains good bibliography; ST. THOMAS, Summa, I, Q. xiii; Contra Gentes, II, 12, 13; HAMILTON, Discussions (New York, 1860); MILL, An Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy (Boston, 1865); MANSEL, The Philosophy of the Conditioned (London, 1866); CAIRD, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Glasgow, 1901); ROYCE, The World and the Individual (New York, 1900); FLINT, Agnosticism (New York, 1903).
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'The Absolute'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/t/the-absolute.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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