Archive for July, 2008

Faith Overcomes the World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Jeff Vehige has another Tuesday with St. Thomas.

Just Thomism

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Just Thomism is a blog about Thomism, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and his followers. I’ve been having an interesting time looking through the posts.

CT 32: The Volition of God

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Chapter 32 is short but perplexing. I have the sense that Thomas is glossing over quite a bit. He says,

We perceive, further, that God must have volition. For He understands Himself, who is perfect good, as is clear from all that has been hitherto established. But good as apprehended is necessarily loved, and love operates through the will. Consequently God must have volition.

We love that which we understand to be good. As human beings, our understanding is often faulty, and we value what we ought not, and seek what we know isn’t good for us. But there’s always something in what we love that we see as good. God, of course, has perfect understanding, and knows precisely how good each thing is (which I imagine is the extent to which its perfections mirror God’s perfections). Defined in this way, yes, goodness necessarily evokes love. And love (as opposed to “being in love”) is not a feeling, it’s an act of will, the choice to go out of my way for another’s good.

So I can accept this paragraph; but I think there’s some background work to be done in the area of defining the good, and love, and the relationship between them.

Thomas continues,

Moreover, we showed above that God is the first mover. But the intellect, assuredly, does not move except through the intermediacy of appetite, and the appetite that follows intellectual apprehension is the will. Therefore God must have volition.

First of all, God is immobile. So we’re talking about God’s intellect moving other beings, not himself.

I think what Thomas is saying here is that first we decide what to do, and then we choose to do it. Before we cause anything to move, we must have done both things in ourselves; and so with God. Since God makes other things move, and since God is intellect, God must also have volition, because they go together.

If you’re thinking that in the next chapter Thomas is going to show that God’s intellect and volition are identical, you’re right. There’s a pattern emerging here.

CT 31: Identity between God and His Intelligence

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Some while ago, Thomas showed that God’s essence is His existence; now, in Chapter 31, we see that God is His intelligence. I would have thought that it was sufficient to say that God is simple, without part, and that God has intelligence, as was previously shown, and that therefore God is His intelligence…but Thomas goes further than that:

God must be His own intelligence. Since “to understand” is second act, for example, to consider, whereas the corresponding first act is the intellect or knowledge, any intellect that is not its own understanding is related to its understanding as potency to act. For in the order of potencies and acts, what is first is always potential with respect to what follows, and what is last is perfective. This is true only with reference to one and the same being, for among different beings the converse obtains; thus a mover and an agent are related to the thing moved and actuated as act to potency. In God, however, who is pure act, there is nothing that is related to anything else as potency to act. Accordingly God must be His own intelligence.

The terms first act and second act are new, so I went looking for enlightement; and found an on-line glossary of terms from Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. This glossary has the following to say about potency, first act, and second act:

potency — This concept must be understood in relation to first act and second act.

Aristotle (from whom Aquinas gets it) introduces it by means of examples. The ability to learn (say, one’s multiplication tables) illustrates potency; knowledge (of such tables) illustrates first act; actually thinking the mathematical truths involved illustrate second act. The eye as a physical organ illustrates potency; the capacity for vision of a healthy eye illustrates first act; actually seeing something with a healthy eye illustrates second act. The ability to become honest (shared by most young persons) illustrates potency; being honest (having developed the virtue of honesty) illustrates first act; voluntarily doing the honest thing from honesty illustrates second act.

In a being, then, first act is to second act as potency to act: the human intellect, for example, has the capability to understand, and sometimes it really does understand. In the case of God, though, there is no potency, but only act. Consequently, it is not the case that God has an intellect which sometimes understands; rather God is an intellect which is understanding:

Furthermore, the intellect is related to its act of understanding as essence is related to existence. But God understands through His essence, and His essence is His existence. Therefore His intellect is His act of understanding. And thus no composition is attributed to Him by the fact that He understands, since in Him intellect and understanding and intelligible species are not distinct; and these in turn are nothing else than His essence.

Omniscience: check. Onward!

CT 30: God’s Essence the Only Species in His Understanding

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

God’s providence arranged things so that I’d have an easy time with the chapters of the Compendium Theologiae that I got to while I was on vacation. Today I’m back home, and with Chapter 30 it’s clear that the vacation is over:

The foregoing exposition makes it clear that God understands through no other species than through His essence.


The reason is, that any intellect which understands through a species other than itself, is related to that intelligible species as potency to act. For an intelligible species is a perfection of the intellect, causing it to understand in act.

A species is a set of things that have the same essence but different accidents, right? And an intelligible species is a set that the intellect can understand. In fact, an intelligible species is a tool with which the intellect understands. As such it is a perfection of the intellect; an intellect possessing a particular intelligible species can understand members of that species. Possession of that species yields new understanding, making actual what was previously only potential.

Therefore, if nothing in God is in potency, but He is pure act, He must understand through His own essence, and not through any other kind of species.

I suppose this makes sense; we’ve established that God doesn’t learn; hence He cannot acquire new intelligible species. And yet he understands everything perfectly, and must do so in and off himself.

In consequence of this, He directly and principally understands Himself. For the essence of a thing does not properly and directly lead to the knowledge of anything else than of that being whose essence it is. Thus man is properly known through the definition of man, and horse is known through the definition of horse. Therefore, if God understands through His essence, that which is directly and principally understood by Him must be God Himself.

Okay; I don’t see the implications, though.

And, since God is His own essence, it follows that, in Him, understanding and that whereby He understands and that which is understood are absolutely identical.

God being simple, this would necessarily follow.

I hope subsequent chapters will shed some light on the importance of this, though.

CT 29: God’s Intelligence Not Potential or Habitual but Actual

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

CT 28 left me wondering just what Thomas meant by saying that God is “intelligent”. Chapter 29 makes it clear that we’re approaching God’s omniscience, that God is All-Knowing:

Since in God nothing is in potency but all is in act, as has been shown. God cannot be intelligent either potentially or habitually but only actually.

Here’s what I think I understand about this statement, based in part on the remainder of the chapter and on previous reading: a thing is intelligible if it is capable of being understood. A being is intelligent if it is capable of understanding things. The integral calculus is intelligible, and I am certainly potentially able to understand it, for I understood it once and could certainly understand it again, if I worked at it. I think this is what Thomas means by being habitually intelligent: I’m in the habit of understanding things, but most things I understand only potentially.

An evident consequence of this is that He undergoes no succession in understanding. The intellect that understands a number of things successively is able, while actually understanding one thing, to understand another only potentially. But there is no succession among things that exist simultaneously. So, if God understands nothing in potency, His understanding is free from all succession. Accordingly, whatever He understands, He understands simultaneously. Furthermore, He does not begin to understand anything. For the intellect that begins to understand something, was previously in potency to understanding.

God doesn’t understand things successively, one at a time, like I do, for there is no succession in God, as we’ve previously established. Rather, God understands all things, all the time. God does not learn. We’ve previously established that He Is; now we’ve established that He Knows.

It is likewise evident that God’s intellect does not understand in discursive fashion, proceeding from one truth to a knowledge of another, as is the case with our intellect in reasoning. A discursive process of this sort takes place in our intellect when we advance from the known to a knowledge of the unknown, or to that which previously we had not actually thought of. Such processes cannot occur in the divine intellect.

In other words, God does not reason, not in Himself, though I suppose He frequently reasons with us as individuals. He simply knows.

Let me advance a possibly flawed analogy. If you draw a geometric figure on a piece of paper, and show it to me, I can say, immediately upon seeing it, “That’s a triangle!” or “That’s a circle!”. If I present a digital photo of that same piece of paper to a computer, it takes sophisticated software to determine that, yes, indeed, “That’s a triangle!” The computer has to proceed by a complex and extended “discursive process” to make that determination. And, naturally, there are things that I can know that the computer can never know. As with me and the computer, so with God and me. What takes me a long, complex process of reasoning is immediately obvious to God.

CT 28: The Intelligence of God

Friday, July 18th, 2008

In Chapter 28, Thomas discusses the intelligence of God:

We must go on to demonstrate that God is intelligent. We have already proved that all perfections of all beings whatsoever pre-exist in God superabundantly. Among all the perfections found in beings, intelligence is deemed to possess a special pre-eminence, for the reason that intellectual beings are more powerful than all others. Therefore God must be intelligent.

Intelligence is clearly one of the perfections of man, man being a rational animal; and since all perfections exist in God, clearly it is one of His perfections. I don’t see that it matters that intelligence is pre-eminent among perfections for this argument.

Moreover, we pointed out above that God is pure act without any admixture of potentiality. On the other hand, matter is being in potency. Consequently God must be utterly free from matter. But freedom from matter is the cause of intellectuality. An indication of this is that material forms are rendered intelligible in act by being abstracted from matter and from material conditions. Therefore God is intelligent.

Here we delve into Aristotelianism again, I believe. Mind includes both the intellect, which is not material, and the sense, which is. The intellect comprehends things by abstracting their forms. So given that God is completely free from matter, he must be intellect? I don’t see this. Is a being of pure spirit necessarily a being of intellect?

Another entry for what “St. Thomas Takes for Granted,” I feel sure.

We proved, further, that God is the first mover. This very perfection appears to be a property of intellect, for the intellect, we observe, uses all other things as instruments, so to speak, in producing movement. Thus man, through his intellect, uses animals and plants and inanimate objects as instruments, of a sort, to cause motion. Consequently God, the first mover, must be intelligent.

When we decide what to do to accomplish some goal, we use our intellect. So in a sense, our intellect uses our hands and feet and other body parts as instruments; and they in turn use plants, animals, and inanimate objects as instruments, and so, until the goal is achieved. It is the nature of the intellect to cause motion.

But this argument bugs me: that God must be intelligent because God is the first mover and it is the nature of intellect to cause motion. It seems backwards. My dog caused things to move without any direction from me, and according to Thomas and Aristotle (as I understand them) my dog had sense but no intellect.

These last two paragraphs strike me as being more in the nature of checks than proofs. It makes sense that God, being immaterial, would be intelligent. It makes sense that God, being the first mover, would be intelligent. These are the results that one would expect. But I can’t see them as proofs.

CT 27: Analogy of Terms Predicated of God and of Other Beings

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

If we can’t define God, what status do our names for him actually have? As usual, the usual rules break down when confronted with the Infinite. in Chapter 27, Thomas says:

The third point is that names applied to God and to other beings are not predicated either quite univocally or quite equivocally. They cannot be predicated univocally, because the definition of what is said of a creature is not a definition of what is said of God. Things predicated univocally must have the same definition.

Remember that a term is used univocally if it has but a single meaning; and that it is used equivocally if it has two or more distinct and unrelated meanings. (Unintended equivocation is the cause of a great many heated arguments, in my experience.)

Anyway, we’ve already determined that our names for God fall short of the fullness of God’s essence, as we ascribe to Him the perfections we see in creatures. When we say that God is all-knowing, we are describing Him in terms of our own ability to know; and yet we recognize that His knowing is different than ours. So we aren’t using the term “knowing” univocally.

Nor are these names predicated in all respects equivocally. In the case of fortuitous equivocation, a name is attached to an object that has no relation to another object bearing the same name. Hence the reasoning in which we engage about one cannot be transferred to the other. But the names predicated of God and of other things are attributed to God according to some relation He has to those things; and in their case the mind ponders what the names signify. This is why we can transfer our reasoning about other things to God.

So while our names for God having something of equivocation about them, it isn’t complete, it isn’t “fortuitous”. The names we use really do have some relation to God’s perfection.

Therefore such terms are not predicated altogether equivocally about God and about other things, as happens in fortuitous equivocation. Consequently they are predicated according to analogy, that is, according to their proportion to one thing. For, from the fact that we compare other things with God as their first origin, we attribute to God such names as signify perfections in other things. This clearly brings out the truth that, as regards the assigning of the names, such names are primarily predicated of creatures, inasmuch as the intellect that assigns the names ascends from creatures to God. But as regards the thing signified by the name, they are primarily predicated of God, from whom the perfections descend to other beings.

So we reason by analogy, starting from the perfections of creatures; but when I call God “almighty”, “all-knowing”, “all-good”, and so forth, although I am working with terms I understand from my knowledge of creatures, I also know that I am applying them to God, who transcends all my knowledge. I know that I am speaking of that in God which is like unto the might, the knowing, the goodness of creatures, but is greater.

In short, you might say that we do the best we can with what we have.

CT 26: Impossibility of Defining God

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

In Chapter 26, Thomas says:

A second point is this: since our intellect does not adequately grasp the divine essence in any of the conceptions which the names applied to God signify, the definitions of these terms cannot define what is in God. That is, any definition we might formulate of the divine wisdom would not be a definition of the divine power, and so on regarding other attributes.

All of our conceptions of God not only fail to add up to a complete picture of God, but each of them falls short of capturing even that aspect of God. We can’t pin God’s essence down like a beetle on a card. Or, as Lewis put, “He’s not a tame lion.”

The same is clear for another reason. A definition is made up of genus and specific differences, for what is properly defined is the species. But we have shown that the divine essence is not included under any genus or species. Therefore it cannot be defined.

At some point, I’d really like to see a clear discussion of definition by genus and species. Thomas clearly has a technical meaning for the word definition; for it seems to me that in one sense everything Thomas has been doing so far is trying to define God so far as he can. It’s simply that what he can do falls short of whatever standard it is that he applies to the word definition.

CT 25: The Names of God Not Synonomous

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Chapter 25 is more or less a corollary of CT 24:

In this connection three observations are in order. The first is that the various names applied to God are not synonymous, even though they signify what is in reality the same thing in God. In order to be synonymous, names must signify the same thing, and besides must stand for the same intellectual conception. But when the same object is signified according to diverse aspects, that is, notions which the mind forms of that object, the names are not synonymous. For then the meaning is not quite the same, since names directly signify intellectual conceptions, which are likenesses of things. Therefore, since the various names predicated of God signify the various conceptions our mind forms of Him, they are not synonymous, even though they signify absolutely the same thing.

There’s nothing particularly mysterious here. All ten blind men really did experience the elephant, and the description each brought to the others really did describe one aspect of the elephant. But each aspect truly was different.

God, of course, is one; our understanding of Him under multiple aspects depends more on the frailty of human reason and perception than on God Himself. But equally, if I say “the Almighty” I’m saying something different than if I say “Most High”, even though I mean God in both cases.