The early modern (Swiss) rebirth of the concept of God as cause of Himself (Causa Sui)

From Plotinus in Florence to Nicolaus Taurellus at the University of Basel


    0. Introduction

    During the early modern age, Switzerland was the land of several “firsts” in intellectual history: the first known occurrences of highly successful terms such as “psychologia” (psychology) and “ontologia” (ontology) were recorded in works published in Basel in 1574, and in St. Gallen in 1606, respectively.1 Another first occurred in Basel as well: here the first Lutheran titled a work using the term “metaphysica,” after Martin Luther’s ban against metaphysics as a science and academic discipline.2 Bearing the title The triumph of philosophy, i.e. the metaphysical methods of philosophizing (Philosophiae triumphus, hoc est metaphysica philosophandi methodus), the work was published in Basel in 1573 by Nikolaus Öchslein (lat. Taurellus: b. 1547 Montbéliard, d. 1606 Altdorf).

    Taurellus studied philosophy at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Tübingen, where he obtained the title of Master of Arts in 1565. Then he moved to the University of Basel to begin a doctorate in medicine, completing it in 1570. The years in Basel were difficult, but Taurellus managed to obtain a professorship in ethics in 1579. Finally, in 1580 he was appointed at the University of Altdorf, the university of the city Nuremberg, with a professorship in natural philosophy and medicine. There he founded the so-called “School of Altdorf,” having as students Ernst Soner (1572–1612) and Michael Piccart (1574–1620).3

    At the very beginning of his career, Taurellus studied in Tübingen with Jacob Schegk, one of the first Lutherans to manifest an interest in metaphysics in his works.4 However, while Schegk had never been able to publish a work on metaphysics in Germany because of Luther’s ban, his pupil Taurellus in Switzerland did. Published in Basel by HenricPetri, the work by Taurellus was perceived – as Andreas Blanck reports – “as a provocation and, career-wise, initially turned out to be a failure.”5

    The goal of Taurellus’s work is not apparent. Some scholars, such as Ernst Feil, believe Taurellus was polemicizing against Averroism, claiming the “method of metaphysics” (metaphysica philosophandi methodus) corresponded to the “triumph of philosophy” (Philosophiae triumphus).6 In those years accusing someone of Averroism was equivalent to accusing him of professing the so-called “double truth,” that is the dualism between the truths of faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Rather than Averroism, Taurellus’s main target here seems to be Luther and his ban against metaphysics that had lasted fifty years among Lutherans and Lutheran academies.

    With the Philosophiae Triumphus Taurellus not only re-launched (against Luther) the lexicon of metaphysics and affirmed (again against Luther) the principle of the unity of truth between revealed theology (the Bible) and natural theology (or metaphysics), that is, between faith and philosophy, but even went so far as to revitalize metaphysically and theologically controversial doctrines: one of these is to admit causality within God Himself, not only outside of God (i.e. the creation of the world).

    Taurellus starts from the epistemological premise that not only the Biblical doctrine of creation (creatio ex nihilo), but also the Biblical concepts of God are not mere articles of faith, but doctrines rationally sustainable through metaphysics. The Philosophiae triumphus contains interesting novelties as of yet unremarked by scholars, in particular with respect to the divine outward causality (ad extra) and even more so the causality within God (ab intra).7

    In the third part of the Philosophiae Triumphus, entitled Philosophical truth on God and His works (De Deo et eius operibus philosophica veritas), Taurellus not only presents God as the eminent and efficient cause of the world “outside Himself” (extra se),8 but also admits a divine inward cause (intra se).

    In another paragraph (Quod gignere Dei sit), Taurellus states that God as a being is nevertheless a principle of life with respect to Himself, that is, within Himself, concluding that God “makes” Himself from eternity (ab aeterno semetipsum fecit).9

    What is new about such a doctrine? In the Philosophiae triumphus, God “produces” Himself from eternity not only in the manner of a principle, but also of a cause: God is the cause of Himself from eternity.

    So because of the fact that God is the cause of Himself in anyone else’s reason, He does not exist in a contingent manner.”10

    Taurellus therefore explains God’s non-contingent being on the basis that, unlike all other created beings, God is the only being who is the cause of Himself: the doctrine of divine self-causality explains God’s absolute non-contingency.

    As is well known, in philosophical theology the concept of something that is the “cause of itself” was widespread since the Enneads (VI.8.20) of Plotinus in the original Greek of αἴτιον ἑαυτοῦ. According to the Latin translation of the Enneads, made and published in Florence by Marsilio Ficino in 1492, God being not a fact (factum) but a maker (faciens), there is an effectio absoluta with which God produces Himself from eternity. In Plotinus God “gives existence,” “loves,” “looks” and “produces” Himself.

    Other editions of Ficino’s translation were published in Basel by the publisher Petrus Perna in 1559 and 1580, and another edition was released by the publisher Guarinum in 1562: therefore the Enneads circulated widely in Basel during the years Taurellus worked at the University.11 From Andreas Blanck’s studies we know Taurellus knew Ficino’s works.12 Using Latin expressions akin to those in Ficino’s translation of Plotinus’ Enneads, Taurellus explains divine self-causality with expressions like “[Deus] se fecisse/seipsum fecisse” (God made Himself).13 In the Philosophiae Triumphus by Taurellus we also find the syntagma “causa of himself” (suique ipsius causa), as we do also in Ficino’s Latin translation (sui ipsius causa) of Plotinus’s Enneads (VI.8.14).14


    1. From Basel to Florence: the Council, the dogma of the Trinity and God as principle or as cause of Himself

    According to the testimonies of Giovanni Aurispa (1376–1459) and Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), the first Greek manuscripts of the Enneads came to the West from Byzantium between 1424–1427. Florence and Florentine Humanism were the context within which this first reception of the Enneads took place, intensifying with the Greek John Argiropoulus (Ιωάννης Αργυρόπουλος, c. 1415–1487) who in 1460 held courses on Plotinus in Florence. During the ecumenical Council of the Roman Church held in Florence (1439–1443), further theological foundations for a reception of the concept of God as cause of Himself were laid.

    Summoned to Basel by Pope Martin V in 1431, the Council was transferred to Italy, first to Ferrara (in 1438) then to Florence (in 1439) by Pope Eugene IV, principally because of the conciliarism (i.e. Council primacy over the Pope) then prevailing in Switzerland despite papalism (i.e. Pope’s primacy over the Council).

    In today’s manuals of Catholic dogmatics, the Council of Florence is considered the most recent council regarding the definition of the dogma of the Trinity, after the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). Concurring on the “procession” of the Holy Spirit by (God) the Father and the Son (Christ) as from a single principle, the chronicles of the Florentine Council narrate that Greek and Latin theologians used different expressions: the Greeks claimed that God-Father and the Son (Christ) are both considered the “cause” of the subsistence of the Holy Spirit, while the Latins claimed that the Spirit proceeded from the first two persons of the Trinity as from a single “principle.”15 The discussion was therefore whether it was possible to use the term “cause” (causa) or the term “principle” (principium) within the relations of the divine Trinity. If the Father and the Son (who are God) cause the procession of the Holy Spirit (who is also God), then it could be legitimate to say that, within the Christian Trinity, God causes Himself. The Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) also reports a similar debate recalling the Council of Florence and the figure of the Cardinal Bessarion (1403–1472). However, Suárez recalls that Latin theology, including Latin Church Fathers such as Augustine and Jerome, had already used the syntagm “causa sui.” However, in explaining the divine essential attributes, God is defined as causa sui in a negative way, because God does not receive his being from another, but only from Himself. Other Latin theologians of Neoplatonic orientation, such as Meister Eckhart (1260–1328)16 and Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464),17 used the definition of God as causa sui: we should also remember that Cusa was present at the Council of Florence, after attending the Council of Basel.

    However, the case in which the term “cause” is instead attributed to God within the relations of the Trinity is different: this is a typical use of the Greek Fathers and Eastern Christian theology, as Suárez confirms.18

    In his translation of Plotinus’ Enneads, Ficino provided a philosophical (Neoplatonic) background and a Latin translation in order to establish the consistency of the definition of God as “cause of Himself.”


    2. Some logical and theological objections to the concept of “cause of itself”

    Despite Plotinus and Neoplatonism, a mainly Aristotelian tradition states that the concept of something that is the “cause of itself” is not consistent. According to the principle of identity by Aristotle, nothing can be itself and different from itself (not even God). It is not possible to affirm something that is before and after itself at the same time. Affirming that God is the being that exists “by virtue of his essence” (vi suae essentiae), Aristotelian scholasticism did not mean that God should be the cause of Himself, but that God is the being that cannot not-exist.

    From Thomas Aquinas and his Second Way19 to Kant’s New Elucidation (1755),20 many authors rejected the concept of something as the cause of itself, declaring it impossible or not logically consistent. The nature of the cause is prior to the notion of what is caused, and the latter is posterior to it. Something that would be prior and different to itself is simply impossible: in this case, the same would be the same before and after, which is absurd.

    Despite this statement, Descartes, Spinoza and Hegel maintained the concept of causa sui, albeit with some differences. Descartes builds one of his proofs of God’s existence on this concept in his Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy). Drawing upon Descartes’ concept of God as causa sui, Spinoza builds the deductive system of his Ethics on such a concept, though developing a pantheistic orientation for his metaphysics.21 Hegel argues that the concept of causa sui is the most speculative and hence concept for philosophy.22 It is well known that Hegel rejected the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction: contradiction is, indeed, the “engine” of Hegel’s system, not what must be excluded and placed “outside” it.

    From a theological point of view, the concept of causa sui could generate problems if referred to the Christian Trinity, for at least two reasons: i) Being a pure act from always and forever, God has no need to produce Himself like a cause; ii) putting a causal relationship between the Father, the Son (Christ) and the Holy Spirit, an alteration between the three persons of the divine Trinity could be generated from an ontological point of view: the cause is ontologically prior and pre-eminent to that which it causes. Referring the concept of causa sui to God risked subordinating one person of the Trinity to the others (as claimed by Arianism and some Antitrinitarians).


    3. Between philosophy and faith: God as causa Sui according to Taurellus

    Instead, according to Taurellus, divine self-causality is not only a consistent doctrine from a philosophical point of view, but also an article of faith, which Christians “piously believe” (pie credemus) on the basis of the Holy Scriptures. According to Taurellus, the Bible23 teaches that God “makes Himself” (seipsum facit), that is to say, God produces and causes Himself from eternity to eternity.

    Taurellus’ epistemological goal is once again to note the possibility of an agreement between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith. Against Luther, Taurellus affirms that not only does philosophy not contradict theology per se, but it must be placed at the foundation of theology. Fundamental as it is to understanding the mysteries and doctrines of faith, philosophy is thus fundamental for the salvation of man.24 In this case, philosophy is metaphysics, or more precisely, metaphysics considered as rational or natural theology.

    Recent studies have found the occurrence of the doctrine of God as causa sui also in a further work by Taurellus: the Synopsis Aristotelis Metaphysices (Synopsis of the Aristotle’s Metaphysics), published in Hanau in 1597. A study by Igor Agostini (2008) has shown that the Reformed theologian Melchior Leydekker (1642–1721), professor in Leiden, in 1677 criticized the logical and theological consistence of the concept of God as causa sui, affirming a continuity between the model of divine self-causality used by Descartes in his Meditations on first philosophy and that of Taurellus in the Synopsis Aristotelis Metaphysices.25 However, years earlier in his Letter (1642) to the Jesuit Jacques Dinet (1584–1653), Descartes had stated he did not know Taurellus at all.26

    In his answers (I) to Jan de Kater (Caterus, ca. 1590–1655), Descartes had argued that the model of divine self-causality should be thought through efficient causality. In the answers (IV) to Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694), instead, he had – in a more moderate way – turned to formal causality.

    Today we are able to integrate such a genealogy backdating to more than twenty years earlier the first occurrences of the concept of God as causa sui in Taurellus: the expressions used to expose divine self-causality in Synopsis Aristotelis Metaphysices (1596) are in fact the same used by Taurellus in his Philosophiae Triumphus (1573).

    In conclusion: both the Basel editions of Ficino’s Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads and the debates held at the Council of Florence (on the divine Trinity and causality) provide background for better understanding the “rebirth” of the concept of God as causa sui by Taurellus during the early modern age in Switzerland. From little Switzerland this concept came to be (through Descartes and Spinoza) one of the fundamental “structures” of modern Western philosophy.





    * This research was made possible by the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).
    SNSF-Projects 100012_165815 and 100012_192559 - Applicant: Prof. Dr. Giovanni Ventimiglia (TF- Universität Luzern)

    1 On latest findings of the first occurrences of this two nouns see Lamanna, “On the Early History of the Term ‘Psychology.’”; Devaux / Lamanna, “The Rise and Early History of the Term ‘Ontology (1606–1730).”

    2 As to Luther’s interdict against metaphysics see Dieter, Der junge Luther; Büttgen, Luther et la philosophie, 53–69.

    3 For an updated Taurellus’s biography, see Blank SEP, s.v. “Nicolaus Taurellus.” Accessed 24 June 2022.

    4 See Schegk, Erotemata, f. 3r: “Quod est subjectum Philosophiae naturalis? Corpus naturale quatenus movetur. / Harum rerum scientia, quomodo ab Aristotele appellari consuevit? Duobus modis. Interdum enim Physicen, aliquando secundam philosophiam nominat. / Quare secundam philosophiam, & non primam nominat de rebus eiusmodi scientiam? Quoniam rebus his, quae natura constare dicuntur, multo sint aliae quaedam substantiae tum nobiliores, tum praestantiores, ut sunt divinae illae atque immortales intelligentiae, quarum cognitio prima philosophia merito dicitur, quemadmodum Aristoteles in Metaphysicis inquit.”

    5 Blank, SEP, s.v. “Nicolaus Taurellus.” Accessed 24 June 2022.

    6 Feil, Ernst, Religio, 2:81.

    7 The only study that offers an overview on Taurellus and Trinitarian theology is Schmid, Nicolaus Taurellus. However, Schmid says nothing about Taurellus applying the concept of something being the cause of itself to God.

    8 Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, part 3, 532: “Primum vero Deum ipsum seu causam contemplabimur, quales nos effecerit, ut a priori quod quaerimus conspiciatur, post sensus ipsos consulemus, an res ipsae prout constituerimus respondeant.”

    9 Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, part 3, 532: “Quamobrem cum sujpsius principium principium Deus existat, quo simplicissima eius definitur substantia, sic eum ab aeterno dicimus egisse, ut seipsum fecerit. [...] Deus autem cum nunquam coeperit, perpetua subsistit actione, quae nec principium habuerit, nec finem sit habitura quo nomine vita et contemplationem quae illius internae sunt actiones, hac ipsa compraehendimus, ut Deus ab aeterno seipsum faciens vita fuerit et contemplatione foelicissimus. [...] Deus qui non sibi solum simile sed semetipsum fecit ab aeterno genuisse dicendus est.”

    10 Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, part 3, 462: “Quamobrem quod a nullo Deus suique ipsius causa sit, contingenter non existit.”

    11 As to the first Latin edition by Ficino in Florence, see Saffrey, “Florence, 1492: The Reappearence of Plotinus.”; As to the Swiss editions, see Chiaradonna, “Marsilio Ficino traduttore.”

    12 In this regard see Blank, “Existential Dependence .” 4. Then also Blank, Blank, SEP, s.v. “Nicolaus Taurellus.” Accessed 24 June 2022. 

    13 Other Latin expressions used by Taurellus in this regard are “sic eum ab aeterno dicimus egisse, ut seipsum fecerit” (Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, 528) and “Deus non sibi solum simile, sed semetipsum fecit, ab aeterno genuisse dicendum est” (Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, 530).

    14 Plotinus, Enneades, 6, chapter 14, book 8, 521: “[…] quippe cum sit sui ipsius causa atque a seipso, & propter se sit hoc ipsum, quod dicitur ipse. Eft enim primo ipse, vel supervere, & (vt ita dixerim) superenter ipse.” As to this passage by Plotinus see Beierwaltes, Das Wahre selbst, 123–29. See also note 123 in Thomas Leinkauf’s Commentary on his German translation of Giordano Bruno’s De la causa, principio et uno (Über die Ursachen, das Prinzip und das Eine), 409–410.

    15 See Denzinger / Schönmetzer. Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum (editio XXXVI) (Herder: Freiburg i.Br., 1973) 331: “[De processione Spiritus Sancti] In nomine igitur Sanctae Trinitatis, Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, hoc sacro universali approbante Florentino Concilio, diffinimus, ut haec fidei veritas ab omnibus Christianis credatur et suscipiatur, sicque omnes profiteantur, quod Spiritus Sanctus ex Patre et Filio aeternaliter est, et essentiam suam suumque esse subsistens habet ex Patre simul et Filio, et ex utroque; declarantes, quod id, quod sancti Doctores et Patres dicunt, ex Patre per Filium procedere Spiritum Sanctum, ad hanc intelligentiam tendit, ut per hoc significetur, Filium quoque esse secundum Graecos quidem causam, secundum Latinos vero principium subsistentiae Spiritus Sancti, sicut et Patrem.”

    16 In this regard seeMeister Eckhart, Pr. 52 II, 3–2, in Deutsche Werke, 492–93.

    17 See Nicholas of Cusa, De aequalitate (1459), 14. See also Cusanus, Sermo CCXLVII: Dominabuntur populis 1456 Brixinae festo Ss. Simonis et Iudae Apostolorum Dies: 28a oct. 1456 Brixinae [Sec. Koch CT I 7, 172: Sermo 245]

    18 Suárez, De Sanctissimo Trinitatis Mysterio libri duodecim (1606), chapter 2, book 2, n. 8, 577: “Exponuntur Patres utentes nomine causae. — Nec movere quemquam debet, quod interdum Patres utuntur nomine causae; in hoc mysterio, illud tribueutes Patri respectu Filii, ut videre est in Nazianzeno, orat. 29, Basilio, libris contra Eunomium saepe, et Damasceno, lib. 1, de Fide, cap. 8 et 1 1, et in aliis Graecis. Et ex Latinis ita etiam loquitur Richardus de S. Vict., lib. 5, de Trinitate, cap. 7. Propter quod Aureolus in 1, dist. 20, censuit, vocem illam causa, etiam juxta proprietatem latini sermonis, posse proprie Deo attribui ad intra. Verumtamen advertendum est, duobus modis solis solere Patres tribuere hanc vocem Deo. Primo in ordine ad attributa essentialia : quomodo Augustinus et Hieronymus aliquando dixerunt, Deum sibi esse causam, ut sit, vel ut sapiens sit, et talis locutio intelligenda est negative, scilicet, Deum non habere ab alio, ut talis sit, sed ex se talem esse, et ideo non est extendenda illa locutio. Alio modo tribuitur uni personae respectu alterius.  Et hoc modo loquuntur saepe Graeci, raro Latini, ut notatur in Concilio Florentino, sessione ultima in litteris unionis, et in eadem scissione idem notat Bessarion in oratione pro unione, capite ultimo ubi declarat, Graeco non uti ila voce, prout indicat limitationem, aut dependentiam, sed prout dicit simplicem originem, et capite tertio advertit, Cyrillum, quamvis Graecum, illam vocem non admississe. Igitur nobis non est utendum nomine causae, sed principii, ut notavit optime Hilarius, lib. 9, de Trinitate, et D. Thomas, 1 part., quaest. 33, et consentiunt reliqui scolastici.” 

    19 Aquinas, Summa theologica, part 1, q. 2, a. 3: “The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.” – We should remember that Thomas Aquinas reiterates his opposition to the concept of something that is cause of itself also in De potentia, q. 7, article 8 and Summa contra Gentiles, chapter 18, book 1.

    20 Kant, Nova dilucidatio, 14: “Quicquid enim rationem exsistentiae alicuius rei in se continet, huius causa est. Pone igitur aliquid esse, quod exsistentiae suae rationem haberet in se ipso, tum sui ipsius causa esset. Quoniam vero causae notio natura sit prior notione causati, et haec illa posterior: idem se ipso prius simulque posterius esset, quod est absurdum.”

    21 In this regard, it is sufficient to recall the first definition that opens Spinoza’s Ethica: “”Per causam sui intelligo id cujus essentia involvit existentiam sive id cujus natura non potest concipi nisi existens.” See Spinoza, Ethica, Latin Edition by Carl Gebhardt:

    22 Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, Dritter Teil, Erste Abteilung “Spinoza”: “Die erste Definition Spinozas ist die Ursache seiner selbst. Er sagt: »Unter Ursache seiner selbst (causam sui) verstehe ich das, dessen Wesen « (oder Begriff) » die Existenz in sich schließt oder was nicht anders gedacht werden kann denn als existierend. « Die Einheit des Gedankens und der Existenz ist sogleich von vornherein aufgestellt (das Wesen ist das Allgemeine, der Gedanke); um diese Einheit wird es sich ewig handeln. Causa sui ist ein wichtiger Ausdruck. Wirkung wird der Ursache entgegengesetzt. Die Ursache seiner selbst ist die Ursache, die wirkt, ein Anderes separiert; was sie aber hervorbringt, ist sie selbst. Im Hervorbringen hebt sie den Unterschied zugleich auf; das Setzen ihrer als eines Anderen ist der Abfall und zugleich die Negation dieses Verlustes. Es ist dies ein ganz spekulativer Begriff. Wir stellen uns vor, die Ursache bewirkt etwas, und die Wirkung ist etwas anderes als die Ursache. Hier hingegen ist das Herausgehen der Ursache unmittelbar aufgehoben, die Ursache seiner selbst produziert nur sich selbst; es ist dies ein Grundbegriff in allem Spekulativen. Das ist die unendliche Ursache, in der die Ursache mit der Wirkung identisch ist. Hätte Spinoza näher entwickelt, was in der causa sui liegt, so wäre seine Substanz nicht das Starre.

    23 Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, Part 3, 532: “Haec autem Scriptura demonstrat apertissime, dum patrem nominat ipsas, Flium, Sanctumque Spiritum, Caeterum quod eo ipso Deus quo seipsum facit, foelicissimus existat, eadem scriptura docet evidenter, hisce vocibus quas de suo filio dominus expressit. Deum pie credemus ab aeterno seipsum fecisse, Patrem filium sibi genuisse [...].”

    24 Taurellus, Philosophiae triumphus, Part 1, Tr. I, 220: “Philosophiam Theologiae, ipsiusque salutis esse fundamentum, ipsique nulla ex parte contradicere – Philosophiam itaque inseparabilem mentis intelligentis vim nominamus, negatam nemini, qua Deum atque seipsum quivis conoscere potest, in quo gratiae fides appraehensio fundata consistit.”

    25 Leydekker, Fax veritatis, loc. 3, controv. 10, 136: “Si recoquitur tantum error Taurelli, qui absurdissime statuebat Deum sui ipsius causa et principium esse, et semetipsum produxisse.”

    26 Descartes, Epistola ad P. Dinet, in Œuvres, AT VII, 563–603, at 586, ll. 13–26: “[…] cum Taurello et Gorlaeo, quoas Authores [...] mihi certe sunt ignoti, haereseos esse damnatum”. On Taurellus, Leydekker and Descartes see Agostini, L’infinità di Dio, 343–344.



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