Archive for June, 2008

CT 10: Identity of God with His Essence

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

In Chapter 10 we get technical; but Thomas also defines his terms better than he sometimes does. (If I ever write a book of theology, I think I’ll call it Things St. Thomas Aquinas Took For Granted.) Here he talks about the meaning of the word essence:

The further conclusion follows that God is His own essence. The essence of anything is that which its definition signifies. This is identical with the thing of which it is the definition, unless per accidens something is added to the thing defined over and above its definition. Thus whiteness is added to man, over and above the fact that he is a rational and mortal animal. Hence rational and mortal animal is the same as man; but whiteness, so far as it is white, is not the same as man.

A thing’s essence, then, is precisely that about it which is not per accidens, accidental. This is consistent with my definition of these terms in previous posts (I was reading ahead), though more clearly stated. (Go figure.)

In any being, therefore, in which there are not found two factors whereof one is per se and the other per accidens, its essence must be altogether identical with it.

This follows quite clearly. Every thing must have at least one factor which is per se, that is, essential. A circle in the plane, for example, is the set of points equidistant from some other point. That’s the essence of a circle. Take that away, and you’ve got no kind of thing at all. And if the thing has no accidents, as in the case of the geometric definition of a circle, then the definition is the thing itself.

In God, however, since He is simple, as has been shown, there are not found two factors whereof one is per se and the other per accidens. Therefore His essence must be absolutely the same as He Himself.

Aha! I think this is the point I was struggling with in earlier posts. You’ve got to have essence; you don’t have to have accidents. So if there’s only one thing, and that thing is simple, without part, then all you can have is essence. God, as Thomas has shown Him to be, is simple. So God is His own essence, His own definition. He Is.

Moreover, whenever an essence is not absolutely identical with the thing of which it is the essence, something is discerned in that thing that has the function of potency, and something else that has the function of act.

This is to say, when a thing has accidents, it cannot be pure act: it must have the potentiality to change. Why? Because the accidents are not essential, and consequently can change without changing the essence of the thing. Dye the dog blue, and he’s still a dog. The dog’s color is per accidens.

For an essence is formally related to the thing of which it is the essence as humanity is related to man. In God. however, no potency and act can be discerned: He is pure act. Accordingly He is His essence.

And God has no potential for change, being immutable; by definition, then He is pure act, and can have no accidents. Essence is all that’s left, so God is His own essence.

I like this chapter a whole lot; it shines a spotlight on a number of things that have been making less than perfect sense. In the words of a card I was given when I graduated from high school, I feel like I am now confused on a higher level, about more important things.

That said, it’s not clear why this point matters. But doubtless this will be explained in due course.

On Not Knowing What I Am Talking About

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

In case it isn’t clear to anyone, I’m not writing this blog to share my vast fund of knowledge; I’m writing it to learn. On the other hand, it gets tiresome qualifying every other sentence with “as I understand it” or “so far as I can tell” or “it seems to me that”. Consequently, I probably sound considerably more certain than I actually am.

Thus, if you read something that strikes you as clearly wrong, please call me on it.

Negative Theology

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

There’s something important about Thomas’ approach to natural theology that isn’t immediately obvious: it is essentially negative. In fact, all natural theology is essentially negative.

Backing up a moment—natural theology is that branch of philosophy that deals with what we can know about God through pure human reason, given our knowledge and observation of the natural world around us. Natural theology depends in no way on any divine revelation apart from Creation itself.

The problem is that apart from revelation, God is almost completely beyond us. As Pope Benedict regularly puts it, He is the Wholly Other. And so natural theology, far from being a list of positive statements about God, is really a list of negative statements. For example, God does not change. God has no parts. God is eternal, i.e., God has no succession of time.

This is just something to keep an eye out for as we proceed.

CT 9: Simplicity of God

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

In Chapter 9, Thomas explains that God is “simple,” that is, not composed of multiple parts.

A similar course of reasoning clearly shows that the first mover must be simple. For any composite being must contain two factors that are related to each other as potency to act. But in the first mover, which is altogether immobile, all combination of potency and act is impossible, because whatever is in potency is, by that very fact, movable. Accordingly the first mover cannot be composite.

I do not see why any composite being must “contain two factors that are related to each other as potency to act.” But then, I’m not entirely sure what it means for being to “contain two factors that are related to each other as potency to act.” To review, potency, or potentiality, is the possibility of having some form, as my son has the potency of being a man. Act is the actuality. Once my son grows up, he will actually be a man. But what the quote phrase actually means I don’t understand. But the argument that God, being immobile and immutable, is solely act with no potency is clear enough.

Perhaps it’s simply that a being consisting of two or more pieces has the possibility of being separated into its pieces; that’s the potency, and the individual pieces are the act.

The subsequent argument makes more sense.

Moreover, something has to exist prior to any composite, since composing elements are by their very nature antecedent to a composite. Hence the first of all beings cannot be composite.

Because if it were, its components would have existed beforehand, and it would not be the first of all beings.

Even within the order of composite beings we observe that the simpler things have priority. Thus elements are naturally prior to mixed bodies. Likewise, among the elements themselves, the first is fire, which is the simplest of all. Prior to all elements is the heavenly body, which has a simpler construction, since it is free from all contrariety. Hence the truth remains that the first of beings must be absolutely simple.

And here again we have an appeal to Aristotelian physics, which I have a hard time taking seriously. On the other hand, we moderns would agree that atoms, for example, are naturally prior to, say, books, computers, and human beings, and that electrons, protons, and neutrons are naturally prior to atoms. But I’m not sure that this is truly relevant.

Essence, Genus, and Species

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

The essence of a thing is what makes it what it is. If you change a thing’s essence, you have a different kind of thing. A thing’s essence is distinct from a thing’s accidents, those features of a thing that can be changed without changing the kind of thing it is. If I’m not mistaken, a thing’s essence is also referred to as its substantial form, though there might be a subtle distinction that eludes me.

Thomas often speaks of essence in terms of genus and specific differences, or genus and species. These terms are similar to those used in zoological taxonomy, though I suspect that here as well there are subtle distinctions that elude me. In particular, I’m not sure if Thomas thinks that every being has a species and a genus and that’s it, i.e., that his system of taxonomy is only two levels deep (which is hardly enough), or whether it’s simply a convenient way of expressing similarities and differences between two begins which have both essential similarities and essential differences.

My suspicion is that both are true: that Thomas presumes, God’s creation being an orderly place that reason is capable of understanding, that in principle every being does have a proper genus and species, but that in practice he doesn’t try to enumerate them. Though it may be that Aristotle provides such an enumeration which Thomas takes for granted. Aristotle seems to have been very fond of the making of lists and the categorization of things (and of the definition of the categories by which to categorize them).

Note: If anyone can recommend a good introduction to the thought of Aristotle that is accessible to the layman but more advanced than Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, I’d greatly appreciate it, as I’ve not been able to identify one. I do highly recommend Aristotle for Everybody, though.

Aristotle for Everybody

CT 8: Absence of Succession in God

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

I find Chapter 8 refreshingly easy to follow, as it deals with the concept of eternity as I first learned it from C.S. Lewis decades ago. Lewis presented it is a way of thinking about eternity that might be helpful; I was surprised to discover, in just the last year or so, that far from being a private conceit of Lewis, that it’s in fact pretty much the standard theological view.

We tend to think of eternity as meaning “forever,” in the sense of an unlimited expanse of time. Properly, however, eternity is timeless. God lives in eternity; time as we know it is a function of the created universe. Anyway, here’s what Thomas has to say:

Clearly, therefore, no succession occurs in God. His entire existence is simultaneous. Succession is not found except in things that are in some way subject to motion; for prior and posterior in motion cause the succession of time. God, however, is in no sense subject to motion, as has been shown. Accordingly there is no succession in God. His existence is simultaneously whole.

Again, if a being’s existence is not simultaneously whole, something can be lost to it and something can accrue to it. That which passes is lost, and what is expected in the future can be acquired. But nothing is lost to God or accrues to Him, since He is immutable. Therefore His existence is simultaneously whole.

From these two observations the proper meaning of eternity emerges. That is properly eternal which always exists, in such a way that its existence is simultaneously whole. This agrees with the definition proposed by Boethius: “Eternity is the simultaneously whole and perfect possession of endless life.”

The interesting philosophical point here is one I alluded to a few days ago: that the passage of time is a function of change. But there is no change in God, as we’ve seen in past chapters, and hence no passage of time.

CT 7: The Everlasting Existence of God

Friday, June 27th, 2008

In Chapter 7, Thomas takes up God’s eternity in more detail:

From all this it is evident that God exists always. For whatever necessarily exists, always exists; it is impossible for a thing that has no possibility of not being, not to be. Hence such a thing is never without existence. But it is necessary for God to be, as has been shown. Therefore God exists always.

I’m still not sure why it is necessary for God to be; but I’m reasonably convinced that if God did not exist, I would not exist to ask the question. So I suppose the point is moot. But given that it’s impossible for God not to exist, it’s reasonable that He should always exist.

Again, nothing begins to be or ceases to be except through motion or change. But God is absolutely immutable, as has been proved. Therefore it is impossible for Him ever to have begun to be or to cease to be.

OK. We’ve seen this point before.

Likewise, if anything that has not always existed begins to be, it needs some cause for its existence. Nothing brings itself forth from potency to act or from non-being to being. But God can have no cause of His being, since He is the first Being; a cause is prior to what is caused. Of necessity, therefore, God must always have existed.

I gather the point here is that if God had come to be, there would have had to be something already in existence of have caused Him to come to be; but as God is the first mover there can be no such thing. This, I guess, is a reductio ad absurdum: we assume that God hadn’t always existed, and we get to an absurd conclusion, that God was caused by something else.

Furthermore, whatever pertains to anyone in some other way than by reason of an external cause, pertains to him of himself. But existence does not come to God from any external cause, since such a cause would have to be prior to Him. Therefore God has existence of Himself, per se ipsum. But what exists per se exists always and necessarily. Therefore God exists always.

Something odd going on here. I am a man; my status as a man is per se to me. That doesn’t imply that I’m eternal. But what: “what exists per se exists always and necessarily”. I am always and necessarily a man. But existence is not per se to me. I did not exist prior to my conception. But existence clearly is per se for God, a defining characteristic of God. Therefore it’s a characteristic that God always and necessarily has, and therefore He must always exist. This almost begins to make sense.

CT 6: Necessity of God’s Existence

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

In Chapter 6 of the Compendium Theologiae, Thomas shows that God necessarily exists:

The same line of reasoning clearly shows that God necessarily exists. For everything that has the possibility of being and of not being, is mutable. But God is absolutely immutable, as has been demonstrated. Therefore it is impossible for God to be and not to be. But anything that exists in such a way that it is impossible for it not to exist, is necessarily Being itself, ipsum esse. Necessary existence, and impossibility of nonexistence, mean one and the same thing. Therefore God must necessarily exist.

Now, I’ve got a problem here. I can see that if a being is immutable, it must either exist eternally, or never exist at all. Since it cannot change, it cannot begin to exist. But Thomas is saying that only the former possibility works: that because God is immutable, it’s impossible for Him not to exist. I don’t see why that should be.

Granted, we exist; I don’t hold with folks like Descartes who go around doubting what’s plainly in front of them. And if we exist, that implies a first mover, as we settled in CT 3, and so God exists. But why couldn’t He not have existed, and everything else along with Him?

There’s clearly a subtlety here that I’m missing.

Moreover, everything that has a possibility of being and of not being, needs something else to make it be, for, as far as it itself is concerned, it is indifferent with regard to either alternative. But that which causes another thing to be, is prior to that thing. Hence something exists prior to that which has the possibility of being and of not being. However, nothing is prior to God. Therefore it is impossible for Him to be and not to be; of necessity, He must be.

This seems to me to be just a restatement of the “first mover” argument. If all Thomas is saying is that because we exist, God must necessarily exist, I’m fine with that. But he seems to be making a stronger statement.

And since there are some necessary things that have a cause of their necessity, a cause that must be prior to them, God, who is the first of all, has no cause of His own necessity. Therefore it is necessary for God to be through Himself.

And here there are clearly depths I haven’t plumbed: “It is necessary for God to be through Himself”. I gather what this means is that you and I depend on on God for our being; but that God simply is. If God “is necessarily Being itself,” as Thomas says above, then I suppose it makes sense that He must exist; how can Being itself not be? But I still don’t see the force of Thomas’ argument.

I will note that the idea of God’s necessary existence, an idea that I believe goes back to Aristotle, dovetails neatly with God’s name for Himself in Genesis: “I AM”.

A Note on the Text

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

For those following at home, be aware that I’m not quoting selectively from the Compendium Theologiae; the chapters really are that short, and I’m quoting them in their entirety.


Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Forms are a big deal in Aristotelian philosophy, and hence in Thomist philosophy. That which is per se to a being, that which makes it what it is, is its substantial form. Thus, your dog has the substantial form of a dog. There is also accidental form, such as a being’s color. Your dog might be brown, but it can be dyed blue, thus changing its form.

Note that form is not shape. A chair has the form of chairness, for example. But think about all the many different kinds of chair you’ve seen, all of which have the form of chairness, but which have many, many different shapes. If a being has an accidental form, Thomas refers to it as having the form per accidens rather than per se.

Most (all?) change involves gaining or losing a form. The terms generation, corruption, and alteration, which Thomas uses in CT 4, refer specific kinds of change. Generation is the gaining of a new substantial form. If I have an axe head, and an axe handle, and I put them together, I’ve made an axe. The two pieces together are a new being, which has a new substantial form, that of being an axe. Corruption is the loss of substantial form. If I hit you in the head with the axe, your body loses its substantial form, that of being a rational animal; it is merely a dead body. Alteration is the gain or loss of accidental form. If you dye your dog blue, you now have a blue dog: your dog remains a dog, though perhaps a disgruntled one.