Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Comparing Things to God


1.  Having established that the perfections of creatures pre-exist in God, both by his power, which causes them to exist, and by his supreme perfection in being, of which all creaturely perfections are merely participations, St. Thomas next asks whether creatures can be said to be like God.  This article is very important, because it brings us another step closer to the full elaboration of the doctrine of analogy, which will be given in qq.12-13.  

2.  St. Thomas is often accused of applying a presumptuous, rationalistic philosophical framework to theology, and replacing the Lord of our faith with a “God of the Philosophers”.  This accusation is a terrible slander against him.  Thomas is always aware of the limitations of human knowledge of God, and his theology approaches the divine essence indirectly, by way of remotion, in order to avoid giving a presumptuous “God’s eye” account, either of the Eternal One, or of his relation to creatures.

3.  Against the similarity between creatures and God, Thomas proposes four objections.  The first is from Psalm 85 (86): “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord.”  Since the name “god” here is used analogically to signify one creatures supremacy over most others, Thomas reasons that, if even the highest creatures are not like God, then no creature can be.  

4.  The second objection observes that things are “alike” only by virtue of some comparison, and only things of like kind (genus) can be compared to each other.  But since God has no kind (cf. Q.3 A.5 above) he cannot be compared to anything, and therefore can’t be “like” anything.  The third objection rests on the necessity of a common form in order to make a comparison.  It is in essence the same as the second objection.

5.  The fourth objection is from the reciprocity of “likeness”: if one thing is like another thing, then the second thing is also like the first.  He quotes Isaiah, to the effect that God is not like anything.  Thus nothing can be like God.

6.  The objections having referenced scripture, Thomas takes his Sed Contra from scripture as well, citing the creation narrative (Gen 1:26) and John’s description of Beatitude (1 John 3:2).

7.  The Corpus of this article is very dense and important for what follows.  It deserves close scrutiny.  St. Thomas begins by dividing similarity into several kinds:  (1) some things are similar because they have in common the same form according to the same ratio, and to the same degree; (2) some things are similar because they have in common the same form, according to the same ratio, but to different degrees (one more, one less); (3) some things are similar because they have in common the same form, but not according to the same ratio.  Let’s examine these categories.

8.  First, there are things which agree in their form, according to the same ratio (more about “ratio” below), and to the same degree.  I have before me two objects: a piece of white chalk and a sheet of white computer paper.  They both have the same form according to the same ratio (they’re both white), and to the same degree (they are equally white).  Here the likeness in the compared form is perfect: same form, same ratio, same degree.

9.  Second, there are things which agree in their form, according to the same ratio, but to different degrees.  This piece of chalk is whiter than that white cauliflower.  Here the likeness is less perfect, because one has the form more than the other.

10.  Third, there are things which have the same form, but according to different rationes.  What does this mean? Thomas’s example here is once again the sun’s equivocal causation of terrestrial phenomena (life, fire, etc.).  We have discussed this example previously, so let’s consider a different one.  A thunderbolt is a certain electrical discharge from the upper atmosphere to the ground.  We observe thunderbolts by their effects: lightning (the visible flash caused by the heating of the air) and thunder (the sound of the shockwave caused by the sudden expansion of that heated air).  Each of the effects shares something of the form of the cause, but under a different specific form (a different ratio).  Thunder is a noise; Lightning is a flash.  Both are so closely associated with the form of the thunderbolt that in ordinary language the three terms are almost interchangeable.  However, strictly speaking, since the two effects of the bolt are in different genera, their likeness is only by analogy to the cause of both (the flash is like the noise to the extent that both are like the bolt that produced them), and the likeness of each to the cause is only by reference to the imperfect possession of the form of the cause in the effect, under a different ratio.  

11.  Thomas next applies his analysis of similarity between things of different rationes and God.  He leads us up by degrees.  One thing may communicate its form to another fully, so that the effect is in the same species as the cause.  Or it may communicate its form to another in such a way that the effect and the cause belong to different species but belong to a common genus (e.g. the painter may communicate his own form to a canvas by making a self portrait, which is like him in its appearance, but is not human).  The likeness is further attenuated the greater the distance between the cause and the effect, so that creatures cannot be said to be like God (who is not in any genus) by any specific or generic ratio but only according to “a sort of analogy”.  There must, however, be some likeness, because every agent acts out its own form (by definition), and thus the effects of every agent are extensions of its own form, imposed on another to the extent that the perfection of the act and the receptivity of the recipient allow.

12.  Thus Thomas’s response to the question of this article is a heavily qualified “Yes.”  Creatures are like God, to some extent, but only to the extent that effects must bear a likeness to their cause.  They are not like him in form, or mode, or measure, but only in that they possess being which is the result of his act as creator.

13.  Thomas answers the first objection by pointing out that, things can be similar and dissimilar in different ways.  Thus creatures cannot be said to be like God by virtue of having a common species or genus with him (in these ways they are dissimilar), but only insofar as they imitate him imperfectly.

14.  To the second and third, he says that creatures are not like God in the way two things of a single kind are like each other, but in the way that things in a given genus are like the thing which, transcending the genus, is the principle of the genus.  No direct comparison can be made, except by analogy, because God is the principle of every genus, and belongs to none.

15.  To the fourth, he denies that God is like creatures, because the reciprocity of the likeness would suggest a degree of equality between God and creatures, which does not exist.  We can compare the form of a statue to the form of the man whose likeness it is, but it would be silly to hold the statue as the principle and compare the man to it.


– The Psalmist says “there is none like Thee, O Lord.”
– Comparison is only possible between members of a common genus.
– Comparison is only possible on the basis of a common form.
– If one thing is like another, then the reciprocal must also be true.

– The likeness between things is on account of a common form, ratio, and degree.
– Likeness is attenuated to the extent that each of these is removed.
– Between agent and effect, there must always be some likeness.
– God is not in any genus, and therefore has no common degree, species, or genus with any creature.
– Creatures are like God, as his effects, but only by analogy and not by direct comparison.

– Things may be like and unlike in different ways. Nothing is perfectly like God.
– Creatures are like God as the members of a genus to that which, transcending the genus, is its principle.
– To say that God is like Creatures would be to imply a false equality, or to treat the effect as if it were the principle of its cause.

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