Platonism and the ‘Form of Being’
It is time to study some of the more philosophical discussions of the 12th century, in this quest for possible sources for the Amalrician heresy. When the historian, Germaine Capelle, was considering this matter (she saw the heresy as a purely intellectual and philosophical deviation) the two potential sources that she investigated in depth were Eriugena and the Platonist / Hermeticist “school of Chartres”, to use the name by which she knew the latter. This “school” does not signify the cathedral school at Chartres, but a group of scholars, who used the same authorities and who were indebted to the same teachers, in particular Thierry de Chartres.
Thierry de Chartres emphasised the importance of God as the underlying unity of the universe. God is the number 1, without which no other number could be made; it is the unity which could go on to create multiplicity. Absolute unity must, however, be undivided and eternal, and must therefore be the same as the divinity. Thierry was fond of mathematical demonstrations, and had a neat formula for the Trinity. God the Father, who is divine unity, is 1. He is the same God as God the Son who is, equally, divine unity or 1. This can be expressed as 1 = 1. Their equivalence, the reciprocal bond between them (the = sign) can be called the Holy Spirit. It is appropriate for this reciprocal bond to be represented by the Holy Spirit, because it is a bond of divine love.
With such a liking for mathematical theology, it is not surprising that these Platonists and Hermeticists were closely involved with the translators who were out in Spain, learning from Islamic and Jewish Avicennists and popularising their Neopythagorean ideals among forward-looking intellectuals in the West. Early Latin Avicennism has many links to the French Platonists and Hermeticists.
Thierry and his pupils liked to quote Boethius’ line, that anything which exists, has its being, because it participates in the divine being, which is the underlying unity behind the world. Thierry described how God is present in all creatures: as the ‘form of being’:
“Unity therefore is divinity itself. But divinity is the form of being for individual things. For just as a thing is bright because of light, and hot because of heat, so individual things derive their being from divinity. Whence God is truly said to be entire and essentially everywhere.”
This statement, that God is the form of being (forma essendi) for all things, needs some analysis, because it comes close to the suggestion, by Aquinas, that the Amalricians believed that God was present in everything as its formal principle.
The concept of being
Being is a difficult concept. Firstly, it can be part of a verb that carries very little weight of meaning (e.g. he is being polite). Secondly, it can refer to existence or life (e.g. in which we live and move and have our being, – i.e. in which we live). Thirdly, it can refer to the essence of something (e.g. its very being) which is usually found as essentia in Latin and refers to the essential characteristics of an individual being, or of a particular species, such as human beings. Lastly, it can refer to eternal being, the fact that, – while all matter is constantly changing, growing, disintegrating and being recycled into some other material, while individuals and solar systems may appear and disappear, – the substance from which everything is made remains, even though it may be invisible. The word in Latin for this is usually esse: this is being as eternity, as the ultimate unity, the One. This being is often called God.
Two types of form
What might the ‘form of being’ mean for Thierry and his associates? They held that there were two types of form: exemplary forms and material forms. The exemplary form is the perfect, uncorrupted form of every thing, as it is in the creative mind of God (or, to use Christian symbolism, in the Logos, the creative Word of God). The exemplary form is therefore a divine ideal (or Idea in Plato’s system). Clarembaldus d’Arras, Thierry’s pupil, equated exemplary form with God:
“Form without matter is eternity, and that is God.”
When something is created in the world, matter is given form (usually many forms at once). These forms are based on the divine exemplars, but are necessarily corrupted by their contact with the imperfections of this world. These imperfect forms are the material forms, called ‘copies’ of the real (divine) forms by Clarembaldus:
“They should rightly be called not forms but copies (or images) of forms.”
All things that have been created have been given these material forms, these copies of the divine forms. It is the combination of material forms which distinguishes one creature from the next.
The form of being
Matter, which starts off as chaotic and unformed, is differentiated into specific things by being given forms. Forms define and particularise. If there is a material form for being (forma essendi), it must give a particular being to a finite species or individual. The material form of being must give a creature its essence (essentia): it makes it a being. It does not make it being (esse), which is unity, divinity and eternity. Nevertheless, the imperfect, material form of being, which is present in all creatures, is a very important link to the eternal, exemplary form of being, which is the divine Being or God.
To quote from Clarembaldus d’Arras, just as the form of whiteness is in anything white, so the form of being is in anything which is; the form of being must, therefore, be everywhere.
“The form of being is in every thing that is. But God is the form of being. Therefore God is everywhere and is in essence (per essentiam) in all things.”
As the form of being, God is in all things per essentiam, – through their essence. He is the infinite being who has given those things their essential being. God has being (esse); a creature has its own being or essence (essentia), through which it participates in being (esse).
Possible influence on the Amalricians
The Amalricians may well have shared such a view of the ‘form of being’. They may also have joined the idea of the form of being to that of the Agent Intelligence of the Avicennists, or more properly to the universal soul which it engenders. They may have believed that there was a divine power within every creature, which both gave it its essential being and, in the manner of the Holy Spirit in humans, could help it to perfect itself in its own kind. (If that were the case, it is probable that their personal experience, of the working of the Holy Spirit within themselves, would have been more important to them, than their knowledge that God was in them as the form of their being. That phrase comes from Aquinas, observing the heresy with the eye of a careful scholastic philosopher.)
Just as some of the Amalricians may have believed, with David de Dinant , that God was universal prime matter (what underlies and is the basis of all matter), they may also have believed that God was the universal form of being, or ‘prime form’ as it might rather clumsily be called (what underlies and is the basis of all form). Both are so far removed from the multiplicity of actual, visible matter or actual, visible forms, that it would not be difficult to equate them with each other and with being, as descriptions of the basic substance, or fundamental unity, which underpins the universe.
The next piece will look in more detail at how 12th-century Platonists may have taken religious suggestions from the Hermetic works which were then becoming popular.