My first Math textbook in university was called “Early Transcendentals”. It was for a course I was taking called Calculus III, and it was well-written and very educational. I’m pretty sure it was one of the books of which I had a physical copy, several of my other books being downloaded in E-Pub or PDF format for free, as a way to save money. It was cost-effective in the short-run, but cost me my long-range eyesight and cost me in glasses in the long-run, as I am now short-sighted. See what I tried to do there.
Keep the idea of a really helpful textbook in mind as I develop what I mean when I talk about transcendentals.
A long, long time ago a philosopher by the name of Aristotle, while grappling with the reality of change in the world around him, came up with the notions of form and matter. Everything in the physical world is made of matter he said. Matter itself does not change. It is sort of the ground of all being. What does change, when say a log of wood is burnt in a fire, is the form that is united to the matter of the wood. Before the log is burnt, the matter in it is informed by certain properties: hardness, smell, colour etc. All the properties that are present in the piece of wood is what he started calling its form. The particles in the log have the form of wood. When it is burnt, its form changes. It loses the form of wood, and takes on the form of smoke, ashes, heat, light and all the other things into which it changes.
To help himself further understand these changes, he divided up the concept of form into ten categories. The first category was substance, which are the essential aspects of a particular form that make it that particular form. The nine other categories he called accidents. Accidents could change in any given individual thing, without there being a substantial change. Accidents included such things like: quality (e.g. colour), quantity (e.g. size, weight, height), passivity and activity.
This division of form into categories allowed philosophers as well as scientists to examine the physical world and discover many truths that have been helpful, both in theory as well as in practice. It has allowed us to dissect the world around us and come to see the smallest bacteria under a microscope in hopes of being able to use it to create a vaccine for cancer. It has also led to our risking introducing unknown variables into the human genome without knowing the full consequences of the changes we make (see CRSPR babies).
The benefits of the analytical method introduced by Aristotle into philosophy and natural science aside, there is another side to reality that has seemed to be totally overlooked, or, at least, taken for granted by modern man.
These are the transcendentals. Transcendentals are the aspects of being that hold for any individual, as well as for every form. You can think of transcendentals as what gives something being in the first place.
One transcendental is unity. Every individual thing has unity. Whether a rock, a tree or the person sitting in the next room. Each thing is limited in its being, but also sufficient unto itself. It does not depend on any other individual for its being. I’m not saying that they exist independently, I’m just saying that they exist with out depending on another individual. Each individual physical thing does depend on the matter that goes to make up its body (They also depend in a radical way on God for their form, but more on that another time). Each spiritual thing also depends on matter, but that is a spiritual matter, different from physical matter. What all of this means, is that there is a oneness about every thing we can observe in reality that is the same in every thing. The oneness I observe in a tree, is the same oneness I observe in a football, in a piece of chocolate cake, and in the nation-state.
What all this talk about oneness is supposed to get you thinking of is the similarities among things, and the similarities between God and things. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Timothy 2:5). You are one, I am one. Every thing is one of its species: one rock, one cat, one dog. God’s oneness, however is of a higher degree than the oneness of other beings. Every being has some composition. In the case of human beings, we are made of matter and form, body and soul. We also are made up of several different parts, physically that make us whole and one.
Unlike human beings and other created things, God has no compound nature. His being is his form, or to put it another way, his matter is his form. In last Sunday’s Gospel he spells this out in a profound way when he reveals the divine name: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:13 – 15).
This oneness of God is the oneness that each individual thing participates in as long as he continues to exist. In Platonic philosophy, God would be called the exemplar, and each individual created thing is able to exist in itself and continue in its unity only by the going forth of the original oneness that exists eternally in God. It’s as though each created being echoes, or reflects, as in a mirror, the oneness that exists completely only in God Himself.
What all of this can remind us of, is the likeness that exists between created things and God. All creation speaks of God. Platonic philosophy, especially the transcendentals, seems to be able to draw out this concept more effectively that Aristotelian philosophy. All of this is so important in an era when creation is treated as a doormat, to walk on and wear out as we move in and out of what some consider our earthly life.
The oneness of creation decries such a warped outlook. Creation is one, the world is one. I’m not advocating for a monism, or a pantheism, where we see God’s essence in all of created things. But I am advocating for understanding the deeper truths than can be discovered from reflecting on this basic truth. Creation isn’t to be thrown away. Our air, our land, our sea was made with significance and identity. There can be no other Pacific Ocean, there can be no other Amazon rainforest. If we destroy them we are destroying God’s unified, unique, beautiful, good creations.
It is the same with human beings. Each human being is unique, beautiful, good and a reflection of God in an even greater way than other created things. There’s a movie coming out this week called ‘Unplanned’, and it speaks to this idea. Nothing is by accident, nothing is unplanned. God knows why he made each thing that he has made, and it is not for human beings to tamper with, far less willfully destroy, a fortiori, a human life.
This all gleaned from a preliminary reflection on that first transcendental: oneness or unity. The other transcendentals include truth and goodness, which I leave for another late night after correcting student’s papers (I’m a school-teacher by day).
The reference to my college Math textbook is to say that transcendentals can be a sort of textbook for life. Reading them in the world around you can help you learn and move about in a more effective and wholesome way.
Thanks for reading. Your homework is to start to see God more in the world around you. In a flower, in your co-worker, in the communities of which you are a part.
Along with oneness, comes wholeness, and peace. May peace fill your lives and may you start to see yourself in your neighbour.
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