Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thomas Aquinas on Divine Incomprehensibility

According to St. Thomas, the ontological foundation for the incomprehensibility of what God is (his quiddity or essence) is indeed divine simplicity. However, incomprehensibility is due, according to Thomas, not to the simplicity of the essence as such. It is due rather to the impossibility of the divine essence existing (actus essendi) in the abstract. In other words, the nature of God is such that there can be no idea formed of it.

A fundamental clarification must be made regarding the meaning of Thomas’s distinction between essence and existence (esse) or act of existing (actus essendi). The esse is not an accident of the essence. It is not an essential attribute. It is outside the essence. In other words, that a thing is adds nothing to what it is. An essence does not change with respect to its essence (what it is) upon the addition of esse (that it is). For example, if I asked a friend to describe his dog to me, he would probably not describe it as brown, furry, tall, and existing. The last attribute is clearly not an attribute in the sense of constituting the essence. It is not what Aristotle called a predicamental. It is rather presupposed to the other predicates, which however do not loose any of their conceptual content if it turns out that my friend’s dog is imaginary.

With this in mind, it becomes clearer as to what the meaning of Thomas’s account of divine incomprehensibility really comes down to.

God, according to Thomas, does not possess the mode of existence of creatures. This mode includes the various kinds of composition characteristic of created being (STh I, q. 3). He includes in his list of compositions characteristic of created being the composition of essence and existence (esse). It is this composition which makes conceptual knowledge possible.

The intellect, according to Thomas, conceives within itself the essence of the object of its intuition. It literally becomes its object in an intellectual way. Thus the knower and the thing known are united with respect to the essence which forms each: outside the mind in matter, inside the mind in the intellect itself. This cognizing operation presupposes the distinction between essence and esse or a particular object’s act-of-existing. When I come to know the object before me, I have in a sense acquired its essence, although its own act-of-existing remains outside conceptualization.

The ultimate reason then that Thomas gives for the impossibility of unaided knowledge of the divine essence is the impossibility of the intellect abstracting from God’s act-of-existing (esse) a rational form. In other words, one cannot have an idea of God. There is no idea, as such, of the divine essence. There is only and can only be “the” divine nature actually existing outside the mind. God’s esse, in other words, does not give up its secrets to the philosophers. This is because there can be no distinction made, as there is no objective foundation for the distinction between, the divine essence and the divine esse.

It also follows from this that God is not directly the subject of philosophy. Philosophy, and particularly Platonic philosophy, is a knowledge based upon essences. It seeks to know not the esse of things (and in that sense not “things” at all) but rather the purely rational order of essences.

Ultimately, for Thomas, the reason for the incomprehensibility of the divine essence is not the same reason for the incomprehensibility of the Plotinian ‘one’. Whereas the latter is inconceivable due to the simplicity of its pure essence, the former is incomprehensible due to its irreducible concreteness, realness, subsistence.


Acolyte4236 said...

I wonder why then Plotinus calls the One energia or esse. Hmmm I think you may have Thomas right, but I think you have Plotinus wrong.

Thomas said...


Perhaps. It would depend, it seems, upon whether Plotinus makes use of the same distinction between essence and 'esse' as does St. Thomas.

Acolyte4236 said...

Plotinus distinguishes between essence and activity which form at least the basis for the latin construals of essence and being. A better candidate for precedent with THomas would be Proclus. In any case, Plotinus seems just fine with thinking of the One in terms of activity, specifically an infinite activity, making it incomprehensible. Simplicity for Plotinus implies infinity and incomprehensibility. This is why the One generates an infinite world and that which is infinitly many, matter.

lexorandi2 said...

Thomas, if God is "pure act," then what's to prevent one from employing something akin to the old argument for God's eternal Fatherhood (i.e., if God is Father then he must be so eternally, and thus Christ is eternally begotten) in support for an eternal act of creation? In other words, if God is Creator than he must be eternally so, and thus the world is eternal?

Thomas said...

Dr. D.,

St. Thomas on several occasions responds to this exact objection, e.g. in the ‘De Aeternitate Mundi.’ Essentially he argues that there are two kinds of agents: natural and volitional. A natural agent is a cause with respect to its nature. A volitional agent is a cause with respect to its will. God is a cause in the second sense. God could will an eternal world but he has willed a temporal one, or at least so says divine revelation.

lexorandi2 said...

How does such square with divine simplicity, in that all such distinctions ultimately break down? Perhaps I'm not following your logic.

Thomas said...

Dr. D.,

I make a distinction between the question of an eternal creation and the problem of divine freedom/simplicity.

According to one of the historic arguments for an eternal world God’s will is eternal, but He wills the existence of the world, thus the world must be eternal. There are other supporting premises in this argument as Aquinas outlines it in ‘De Aeternitate Mundi’ and the ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’. His refutation, however, is – in my opinion – final. He simply points out that there is no reason to deny that God can will from eternity a world in which there was a first movement and thus a first movable thing and thus a first moment. He could also have willed a world in which there was no first movement and thus no first moveable thing and thus no first moment.

According to Aquinas’s most advanced interpretation of this aspect of the problem – which constituted a genuine ‘via media’ between the Augustinians of the 13th c. who contended for a demonstration of first movement (Bonaventura, Kilwardby, Tempier) and the Radical Aristotelians or “Latin Averroists” (Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia and later John of Jandun) who argued for a demonstration of eternal movement, although they professedly accepted on faith [except possibly the last] the Church’s teaching on the temporal beginning of the world – neither an eternal nor a temporal world can be demonstrated (i.e. is rationally necessary). The Christian then assents to it on the basis of divine revelation, i.e. by faith alone (STh I., q. 46, a. 1 & 2).

The relationship between divine freedom and simplicity – and the problems attached to it – is not intrinsically linked to the question of the temporal character of the world.