In the previous posts of this series, we have encountered various candidates for ‘nothing’ in the context of creatio ex nihilo: we have seen how the term is used in its strictest sense by the Thomists and the Calvinist Keckermann, whereas Scotists interpret ‘nothing’ as states of the Divine mind. Several thinkers (Taurellus, Timpler, or Lubinus) assign a central role to matter as the proper denotation of nihil in the context of creation. And in the last post of this series we have seen that Athanasius Kircher provides a synthesis of these approaches, adding another element in the mix, namely space.
The tradition I want to focus on in this blog post, namely the Lurianic Kabbala and its reception by Christian thinkers at the end of the 17th century, agrees with Kircher on the idea that space is an important starting point of creation. But it goes one step further. It makes explicit the assumption that the process of creation itself contains the creation of nothing (a thesis that, as we have seen in the last post, was only implied by Kircher).
These problems are discussed in a series of texts from the Kabbala denudata, published between 1677 and 1684 by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth and Francis van Helmont. The doctrine is expanded in a Lurianic tract presumably from the 17th century, the Liber Druschim and is known in the Cabbalist tradition as zimzum.1 Henry More criticises this hypothesis in his Quaestiones et Considerationes paucae. His concerns are answered by Knorr in the Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones […] Amica Responsio ad D. Henricum Morum. The final reply by More is contained in his Ulterior disquisitio.
In analysing the debate between Knorr and More, it might be helpful to remind us that both writers base their views on fundamentally different methodological premises. Knorr’s intention is primarily philological - to extract meaning from texts that are fairly alien from the perspective of Christian theology. This ‘intercultural sensitivity’ becomes plain in his question to More whether some obscurities in the text may best be explained by different cultural or linguistic attitudes that a well-meaning interpreter has to overcome:
An stylus linguarum orientalium commode possit examinari juxta ἀκρίβειαν Philosophiae Scholasticae?2
More dismisses this objection with a fair amount of hand-waving, confessing to his own ignorance about the cultural background of the Cabbalist tradition, but at the same time pressing the point that some notions must be common to mankind (with a special emphasis on natural knowledge or, as we may say today, ‘hard science’):
Quod stylum linguarum Orientalium attinet, equidem hic ingenue propriam profiteor imperitiam. Haud tamen credibile censeo, quin certae quaedam notiones sint omnibus gentibus cujuscunque linguae communes, ne principia naturalis scientiae videantur pro linguarum varietate variari.3
I confess to the same imperitia acknowledged by More. So the following remarks will not try to do justice to e. g. the Mystical dimension of the Kabbala. This does not mean that I wholeheartedly buy More’s arguments against ‘cultural relativism’. But we should keep in mind that most early modern readers of the Kabbala denudata might have shared More’s general attitude, namely to condense the teachings of the texts into theses and arguments in order to integrate them into the tradition of prisca philosophia, the Esoteric wisdom of the ancients.
From an orthodox Christian perspective, the starting point of the reflections on creation in the Liber Druschim is already quite problematic. Space exists before the world exists. The Deity is extended, because it is the ‘Divine light’ that fills this space completely (omne ubi) and homogeneously (it is at every point of space ‘similar to itself’ (ubique sibi similis).4 At some point of time, the Divine light chooses to create worlds by emanation. The intention and the efficient cause (causa impulsiva) in this is to display its perfection. The light releases in its center an empty space (locus quidam vacuus):
Cum autem in mentem veniret Extenso huic, quod vellet condere mundos, et emanando producere Emanantia, atque in lucem proferre Perfectionem potentiarum suarum activarum, et Nominum atque Cognominum suorum, quae erat causa impulsiva creandi mundi, […] tum compressa quadantenus Lux ista, a puncto quodam medio circumcirca ad latera recessit; atque sic relictus est Locus quidam vacuus, dictus spatium inane, aequidistans a puncto illo, excate in medio ejus constituto.5
So at the beginning of creation God does not expand, but limit Himself. This results in the creation of an empty space.6 Instead of a creatio ex nihilo, the Liber Druschim argues for a creatio nihili. The space left by God is exactly spherical, because the retreating light is homogeneous (so that all points making up the border between light and vacuum have the same distance from the center of the sphere). It is the place (Ubi) of all results of creative processes (that in the Cabbalistic tradition are distinguished as emanation, creation, formation, and production). These results are deemed to be spherical, too, so that they fit into the space left for them by the Divine light:
Compressio autem illa undiquaque sibi aequalis fuit circa centrum dictum per omne spatium, adeo ut locus ille vacuus, exacte esset circularis sub perfectissima aequalitate: […] cum contractio ista Infiniti statuatur undiquaque sibi fuisse aequalis, unde et circularis: […] Apparet igitur Contractionem illam Infiniti statuendam esse circularem: cujus rei causa non est alia, quam in Infinito ipso, sicut dictum est. […] Datur tamen et alia ratio figurae istius Sphaericae, nimirum quod illa, quae Emanatura erant intra locum istum vacuum, futura erant figura Sphaerica sicut jam dictum: ista autem quam proxime debebant applicari Infinito illa circumdanti, idque ubique aequaliter, aequali namque irradiatione frui debebant ab Infinito ex omni parte; […] 7
More’s refutation (I)
Henry More is sceptical: The idea that God creates an empty space in order to create worlds in it contradicts basic assumptions about the Divine light. It confuses extension and impenetrability. And even if such an event should take place, it would not leave ‘nothing’.
More denies the possibility of zimzum, because it contradicts the assumption that the Divine light is immutable and homogeneous: If all regions filled by the Divine light are equal, there is no cause, why a particular region should be chosen as the place for creation.8 Moreover, it is not clear, why the doctrine is required at all: If the Divine light is spiritual, it can be present in a region of space, even if this region is occupied by a portion of matter. This raises the suspicion that the doctrine of zimzum presupposes not merely an extended Deitiy, but a corporeal one (the difference between being extended and being corporeal consisting in impenetrability).9 And, finally, the space resulting from such a contraction of the Divine light, should not be regarded as ‘nothing’. According to his own theory of space, space is a necessary and spiritual entity and not a mere ‘nothing’. But space, understood in this fashion, must then be identical with God.10
Finally, it should be noted in passing which aspects of the Liber Druschim are not criticised by More (and thus seem to be taken for granted), namely the pre-existence of space and the fact that God is an extended substance.
Knorr adresses More’s objections in his Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones in Tractatum I. Libri Druschim R. Isaaci Loriensis Amica Responsio ad D. Henricum Morum. First, he points out that Jewish thinkers do not believe that the resulting space is fully vacuous. God’s presence in this space is diminished, but traces of the Divine remain like traces of fragrance if the bearer of the fragrance is not present anymore.11 The immutability of the Divine light emphasised by More is questionable, too: Knorr adduces several examples from Scripture showing that God is capable of changing the mode of presence in the world (the burning bush, the ark of the covenant, on Mount Sinai, the transfiguration of Christ). And he points out that God is present in a different manner to the universe as a whole, blessed souls, the saints etc.12
These arguments only show that the contraction of the Divine light is a viable hypothesis. But Knorr believes that there is a reason for adopting it, namely because it allows for a more reasonable explanation of the distribution of matter in the universe. According to Lurianic thinking, matter is concentrated at the center of the universe. More’s alternative seems to require that it is dispersed on the lowest level of emenations - this, or so Knorr holds, is much more difficult to explain.13
More’s refutation (II)
More reasserts his position in his Ulterior disquisitio. The analogy between traces of Divine presence in the space created by compression of the Divine light and traces of a fragrance does not help Knorr’s position, because it reenforces More’s point that Knorr is committed to the corporeality (and not merely the extension) of the Divine light.14 The passages from Scripture quoted by Knorr concern the world after creation has taken place. Before creation, the infinite light is, however immutable. Its omnipresence could not be diminished either before or after creation. The appearance of God in the burning bush or the ark of the covenant all take place in the spatiotemporal world, they are, technically speaking, operationes ad extra.15 It is improbable that God saw any need before creation to vary the intensity of its presence, because there were no creatures to be illuminated by that and His own glory was sufficient for him.16
We have seen that the Lurianic Kabbala makes explicit the principle that was only implicitly endorsed by Kircher, namely that the first step of creation consists in the creation of ‘nothing’ itself - and if we disregard Knorr’s defensive move about traces of the Divine light in this vacuum, this is ‘nothing’ in the absolute, non-privative sense. More criticises this doctrine, because, for him, it implies not merely that God is extended (this is a concession he is willing to make), but that He is corporeal. Bodies are impenetrable, whereas spirits can be in the same place as a portion of matter (and presumably at least space as a spiritual entity existed before creation). That God retreats from a portion of space would only be necessary, if He and His creation could not be present in the same portion of space. Moreover, the Lurianic view jeopardises God’s immutability. Knorr’s reply focuses on this point: Since the Old Testament gives numerous examples for a spatiotemporal presence of God, an analogous mutation is not unthinkable with regard to the pre-creational Divine light. And the Lurianic view has the advantage that it can better explain the distribution of matter in the cosmos.
If we leave out the additional complication that traces of the Divine light may be present in the space created by a retracting God, the question of what ‘nothing’ is for the early modern Cabbalist can be answered quite easily: It is a region of the world in which God is absent. Does this mean that only regions of the world that are filled with the Divine light can be regarded as being ‘something’? The next post will show that at least one Cabbalist, Francis van Helmont, was willing to draw that conclusion. His views carry some weight with respect to the question why there is something rather than nothing, because he was a close friend and collaborator of the young Leibniz.
Cf. Liber Druschim, 32: “Scito, quod antequam emanarent emanantia, et creata essent creata, Lux suprema extensa fuerit plenissime, et impleverit omne Ubi, adeo ut nullus daretur Locus vacuus in Notione Lucis, nullumque spatium inane, sed omnia essent plena Luce illa Infiniti hoc modo extensa, cui sub omni notione sua finis non erat, eo, quod nihil esset, nisi extensa illa Lux, quae una quadam et simplici aequalitate ubique sibi erat similis; atque ista vocabatur Or Haensoph Lux Infiniti.” ↩
Cf. Liber Druschim, 33: “Instituta igitur tali contractione atque compressione, per quam locus quidam vacuus spatiumque in medio Infinito relinqueretur inane; jam sane Ubi quoddam constitutum erat in quo existerent Emanantia, Creata, Formata, et Facta.” ↩
Cf. Quaestiones et Considerationes, 65: “Jam vero cum hic Or-haensoph naturae sit necessariae ac immutabilis et ubique sibi similis, qui fieri potest, ut retrahat seipsum a puncto ullo, quo adeo vastam relinquat concavitatem, in qua Mundis creandis sit locus?” ↩
Cf. Quaestiones et Considerationes, 66: “Postremo, vacuum illud quod imaginantur, postquam Deus se a puncto quopiam subtraxerit, non est mera Non-Entitas sed substantia incorporea et necessario existens […]. Unde sequeretur, quod Spiritus sit necessario existens et tamen distinctus a Deo, quod est impossibile.” ↩
Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89: “Ubi perpendendum: Evacuationem istam a Juadaeis ita explicari; non quasi spatium istud Deo plane sit vacuum; sed quod gloriosissima infiniti luminis copia ibi saltem sit diminuta, sicut cum evacuato vitro fragrantis olei pleno non plane tollitur sed saltem diminuitur fragrantia.” ↩
Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89: “Et annon Deus sicut mutavit modum praesentiae suae, qua quondam fuit in rubo ardente, in Arca foederis, in monte Sinai, in loco transfigurationis Christi etc. ita etiam diminuere potuit modum praesentiae suae intra hoc vacuum? praesertim cum et nunc alio modo praesens dicatur universo; alio sanctis, alio beatis etc.” ↩
Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89f: “Et profecto hac hypothesi materia in centrum relegatur angustum, cum contraria hypothesis eandem in circumferentia Emanationum collocet amplissimam, conceptu sane dificillimo.” ↩
Cf. Ulterior Disquisitio, 200: “Et certe similitudo tua, qua rem excusare velis, non minus sapit corporeitatem, dum gloriosissimam Infiniti Luminis copiam tantum minus contendis non in totam tolli, sicut cum evacuato vitro fragrantis olei pleon, non plane tollitur sed tantum diminuitur fragrantia.” ↩
Cf. Ulterior Disquisitio, 200: “[…] respondeo fuisse ante ullum Mundum conditum, immutabilem quandam Divinitatis Lucem sive gloriam, quam nefas est existimare ulla ex parte minui posse, sed eandem prorsus ubique est et ante et post Mundum conditum, nec ullam aliam fuisse ante Mundum conditum praeter hanc essentialem. […] Quando vero nulla fuit externa Creatio, incredibile est Deum tunc ullas induisse mutabiles et variabiles glorias aut praesentis, cum nulla esset Creatura cui irradiaret, suaque Essentialis gloria abunde sibi sufficeret.” ↩