Friday, May 30, 2014

The Perfections of Creatures in God


1. Having established that God should be called “perfect”, Aquinas next sets out to determine the extent to which the perfections we know in creatures are related to the perfection of God in himself.  He asks, in particular, whether creaturely perfections are somehow present in God.

2. He proposes three objections: first, from the simplicity of God, since the perfections of creatures are many and diverse, and could not coexist in one thing.  Second, because the perfections of creatures are often contrary to each other, and contraries cannot coexist in one thing. Third, because life and intelligence add perfections to existence, and since God is pure existence, he cannot contain these perfections in himself.

3. In the Corpus, Thomas provides two demonstrations.  The first runs as follows: God is the primary efficient cause.  Whatever perfection is present in an effect is present in the cause of the effect, either actually (secundum eandem rationem) or virtually (“virtute”, literally “by its power”).  In the former case it is clear that the cause possesses the perfection of the effect.  In the latter case, it can also be said that the cause possesses the perfection of the effect, because, since an agent cannot communicate an actuality it does not possess, even if the form of the effect is only equivocally related to the form of the agent producing it (as life is an effect of the sun’s power), still the power of the cause “contains” the perfection of the effect in a preeminent way.  The skills and ideas of a craftsman are formally distinct from the objects he produces, and yet the results of his craft are in a way preeminently contained within him, by his power, so that the perfection of his works is an expression of the greater perfection of his art.  And so, since God is the cause of the existence and perfection of creatures in this second way, it is clear that we can say that the perfections of all things are present in God, if not as they are in creatures, then certainly in a preeminent way.

4. The second demonstration is simpler: The form of a thing, subsisting in itself, could not lack any of the perfections of the form, but would have to be utterly perfect in its species.  He uses the example of heat: if there were subsistent heat (i.e., if what it was to be hot existed independently as a thing), then it would have to be the ultimate heat.  But God is the form of being, subsisting in itself (ipsum esse per se subsistent).  Therefore he cannot lack any of the perfections of being.  But to be “perfect” in any way is to have being, since the perfection of a thing, i.e. its possessing a certain form, is what gives it being in the first place (forma dat esse).

5. Perhaps now is the proper time to discuss the principle “forma dat esse” (Form gives being.)  Though the principle is not directly cited in this article, it is present implicitly.  In what sense does a thing’s form give it being?  Recall that form is simply what makes a thing what it is.  A thing’s form is that characteristic act or manner of being which makes it this sort of thing as opposed to any other.  We can talk about form in various ways, depending on which aspect of what a thing is we want to get at.  For example, “substantial form” designates the act of a thing that makes it a substance, i.e., a unified thing, over and above the mere agglomeration of its parts.  “Accidental form” by contrast designates those features of a thing that are added to its substantial form, which can be changed or lost without destroying the unifying act that makes this thing as a whole the sort of thing it is.  (Thus a man may cut his hair and remain human.)

6.  Being is always being something.  Not to have a form is not to have any sort of characteristic act, unity, identity, feature, etc.  The answer to “What is a formless being?” is by definition “Nothing.”  And note that this nothingness is a real, absolute nothingness.  Ideas in the mind (for example, “unicorn”) have a certain existence, as ideas, as accidental features of the mind of the one thinking of them, and are thus not genuinely nothing, even if they lack existence outside the mind.  But something that has no form is not just an unrealized possible kind, like a unicorn, but has no kind, no act, nothing at all either unique to itself or in common with other things.  And thus it does not exist at all.

7.  Philosophies of the post-Scholastic variety tend to have a conception of “being” as synonymous with “instantiation in the world”, which makes existence totally horizontal.  Nothing “is” any more than anything else, and the supposition that some things could “be” more than others even seems bizarre.  But once we grant that to be is to have form, and that nonexistence is utterly unformed, we begin to see the emergence a hierarchy of being.  Formlessness does not exist, has no act.  But if we give something act, then it is.  Now suppose we add something to that act, in such a way that it does not lose what it was before, but its former act is subsumed under something more: its capacity to do things is increased, etc.  In this case it is clear that we are adding “to be” (i.e. existence) to the thing, not just according to our ideas, but really in itself.  And the more the thing’s act is compounded and enriched, the more it has form, and the more it exists.  This scale of possible possession of forms, of acts, of existence, is perfection.  To have more act is to be the sort of thing the form of which is further removed from nothingness by the power, the self-diffusive virtue, of its act.  In this way, forma dat esse.  

8.  Consider a maple tree.  Altogether it is one, living thing, and its act as a whole (its substantial form) subsumes all the acts of its parts into a unity which none of them could be or produce separately, which is distinct from the parts in their partition.  This act is the form of the tree, its life or soul.  Now, suppose we remove the form of the whole from the tree, so that what it is is no longer distinct from the form of its parts in their partition.  In this case we have a dead tree.  To clean things up, let’s rearrange the parts (since their arrangement is no longer particularly important).  Now we have a heap of timber.  Now, the timber remains a substance, albeit a different one than the tree.  It has its own characteristic activity and features, its own form, though the pile has no special unity.  One piece of timber is just as much timber as the whole stack (though one branch is not just as much “a tree” as the whole tree… in fact it is not a tree at all).

9.  Suppose we remove the substantial form of this piece of timber, so that its parts (the lifeless cellulose strands making it up) lose their unity and the whole loses its distinction from the parts in their partition.  We do this by sticking the log in an incinerator.  Now we have a heap of ash and some fumes.  There is some distinction between the different kinds of parts, but let’s focus in again on one of these parts, say a carbon dioxide molecule.  Here again the whole is distinct in its unity from its parts in their partition.  We remove the form of the whole, so that the parts no longer act as a whole, but merely as parts.  In this case we have some Carbon and Oxygen ions.  We proceed to the atomic scale, and the subatomic scale, and after removing the substantial form at each level, we arrive at some elementary particle, which is (the physicists tell us) some complex wave-function with a particular spin, velocity, wavelength, etc.  And when we remove these forms, we have only the vague residue of “mass-energy” latent in a force field, and when we remove that, there is (so far as I know) nothing left at all.

10.  Now, it is clear that the form of mass-energy participates in the act of a living maple tree, as well as the form of atoms, of cellulose strands, and woody tissue (i.e. timber).  And yet at each level it is not difficult at all to say that mass-energy is not in itself the same as an oxygen atom, because evidently there is something different about the act of mass-energy in an oxygen atom than in other kinds of atom.  Something has been added to this atom to make it what it is, and to increase the form of the mass energy (though, n.b., it is not simply an increase in the amount of mass-energy).  Granted, many different kinds of “something” can be added to that mass-energy, to make it chromium or carbon or calcium or iron, but clearly the act of an iron atom is not simply the same as the act of mere mass-energy, or we could not claim that the two are really distinct.  And the same is true at every other level.  As we ascend from elementary particles toward living trees, something real is being contributed to the being of the stuff in question, so that without losing anything, the end product is simply speaking more, without being quantitatively, materially moreThe form of the whole adds existence to the form of the parts, so that what was not a tree, did not have the activity of the tree, becomes a tree, and is everything a tree is.  The tree-ness of the tree gives it its perfection, its reality, its being, such that when that form is obliterated, what remains is less than it was before, without losing an iota of its material quantity.

11.  Now we turn to the objections.  Thomas answers the first and second (which appeal to the diversity and opposition of perfections in creatures) by making an analogy to the sun.  Just as the sun by its power contains within it all of its diverse effects in one act, in the same way all things preexist in God, who contains them all as the cause of all.  

12. His response to the third objection once again relies on the distinction between “ens commune” (being in general) and “ipsum esse per se subsistens” (existence itself subsisting in itself).  Being in general does not include in it the perfections of life, or wisdom, etc., because ens commune is the merest of forms, to which is added all subsequent perfections.  But existence subsisting in itself, God, is more perfect than life and wisdom and the rest, and includes them, because these perfections and all others are merely participations in his existence.


– Creatures have diverse perfections.
– Creatures have contrary perfections.
– Life and wisdom are perfections added to a thing’s existence.

– The primary efficient cause contains all that it causes, by its power.
– The subsistent form of a thing could not lack any of the proper perfections of that thing, but to have any perfection at all is to participate more in being, so that subsistent being must have every possible perfection.

– The diversity of the effects does not contradict the unity of the cause, since the effects are merely diverse manifestations of the power of the cause.

– The being of things in general is in potency to the perfections of life and wisdom, but being itself subsisting in itself is above life and wisdom, because these are participations in its supreme perfection.

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