Saturday, July 12, 2014

Can we talk meaningfully about the substance of God?


1.  Having established that God can be named (i.e. can be referenced and described in words), St. Thomas proceeds to ask about the way we can refer to God in words, and how the meanings of these words refer to who God is.  The second through seventh articles focus on modes of reference in names used to describe God, the eighth through eleventh discuss particular names of God (“God” and “He Who Is”), and the final article responds to certain challenges raised by an excessive apophaticism.

2.  First he asks whether any name can be said of God substantially, i.e. can reference the substance or essence of God.  He gives three objections.  The first is from St. John Damascene, who says directly that what is said of God does not signify what he is according to his essence.  

3.  The second is from Denys, who seems to suggest that the different ways of naming God follow from his processions (i.e. creatures), and therefore refer to him by means of these, and do not name his essence or substance.

4.  The third is from the principle that a thing is named according to the manner in which it is understood.  But the divine essence is not known in this life, so it cannot be named.

5.  For his Sed Contra he cites Augustine’s De Trinitate.

6.  The Corpus is complex and unusually long.  First, he distinguishes between negative and affirmative names.  Then, after dealing with the former, he gives a summary of existing (incorrect) doctrines concerning affirmative names, offers three arguments against these opinions, and then gives his own solution.

7.  As regards negative names, he grants promptly that because negative names signify God only by his relationship to creatures, as lacking some particular defect, they do not say what he is, and therefore do not name him substantially.

8.  He then expounds two opinions on the way positive names refer to God.  One is that they only refer to him in order to exclude their opposite.  By this view, saying that God is “good” would indicate only that he is not evil, and saying that he is “powerful” would mean that he is not weak.

9.  The other view is that affirmative names designate God only as the cause of whatever perfection in creatures.  By this view, saying that God is “good” would indicate merely that God is the cause of the goodness of creatures, and to say that he is “wise” would be to say that he is the creator of creaturely wisdom, etc.

10.  He gives three arguments for rejecting both of these views.  First, that if we accept either of them, there ceases to be any basis for ranking the names of God, and thus one can just as much say “God is good” as “God is a flaming jelly bean” since they would refer to God in the same way (by remotion or causation).

11.  Second, because then every name would be said of God in a secondary and purely equivocal way, when what was really being referenced was the creature from which the name attributed to God was taken.  When we call salad “healthy”, we say this not because the greens in it have health (which they do not, being dead), but because they are the cause of the health of the one who eats them.  Thus the designation “healthy” is really said only of the person eating the salad, and in a purely equivocal way of the salad.  If names are given to God only by way of causation or remotion, the same situation will occur there, which then vitiates our ability to speak of God.

12.  Third, he points out very simply that when we speak of God with affirmative names, we intend to speak of him substantially and positively, and not just to reference him as the cause of things or as lacking the opposite of whatever we attribute to him.  When I say “God is good” I mean to attribute Goodness to God, really, as he is in himself.

13.  Next he proposes his own solution to the problem of affirmative names.  This paragraph is one the most important in Q.13, and should be read very closely.  The affirmative names we use for God are taken from creatures.  Thus these names can be said to represent God to the extent that the creatures from which they are taken represent him.  But it was established earlier (1.4.2) that God contains within himself all the perfections of creatures pre-eminently, so that creatures can be said to be like God (1.4.3), and therefore to represent the divine essence in a finite and imperfect way.  Therefore affirmative names do actually signify the divine substance, and are predicated of God substantially, but imperfectly, just as people sometimes call lightning “fire” because they come to know it through the fire that it ignites, which represents the higher fire that lightning actually is.  Calling lightning “fire” is not exactly correct, but even though it falls short of the perfect denomination of the essence of lightning, it still represents that essence by way of the imperfect likeness of it in its better-known effect.  

14.  When we say that God is good, we speak from the forms of goodness known to us in creatures, extending the same form to the one who caused them to be good, but we do not say that he is good merely because he is the creator of good things, but on the knowledge that the actuality of the cause exceeds that of the effect, so that God’s goodness must exceed the goodness of creatures, although in a way that we cannot know in the present life.

15.  In response to the first objection, Thomas clarifies that Damascene means only to deny the perfection of the names, not the fact that they reference the divine substance.

16.  To the second he says that often the thing a name is derived from differs from the name actually signifies.  He uses the famous (false) etymology of the word “lapis”, which is supposedly from “laedit pedem” to illustrate.  Many other examples are available.  For example, “lightning bug” is said of a certain species of glowing insect.  If the derivation of the name were adequate to specify which thing it referenced, then many things would count as lightning bugs which do not go by that name.    Similarly, the names of God are derived from the creatures which proceed from him, but they designate God by way of the likeness of him contained in these various processions.

17.  To the third he says that the objection suffices only to reject any name derived from the vision of the divine essence, which we cannot possess in this life.  But the representations of that essence which we do see in the present life are adequate for us to grasp something of who God is, and to name God substantially by what we find of him represented in creatures.


- Damascene says that no name signifies the divine substance.
- Denys says that we name God by his processions, and therefore not by his substance.
- We cannot know the essence of God in this life, therefore we cannot name it.

- Negative names do not signify the substance of God.
- Affirmative names must signify the substance of God, because (1) otherwise there would be no order of names, (2) otherwise every name would be said of God in a secondary and equivocal way, (3) we clearly intend to reference God substantially when we use affirmative names.
– Affirmative names are said of God substantially on the basis of the imperfect representation of God found in the creatures from which these names are derived.

- Damascene meant that no name signifies the divine substance perfectly.
- The names derived from the processions still signify the substance.
- Though we can’t name the divine essence on the basis of vision, we can name it on the basis of its representations in creatures.

Can we meaningfully describe God?


1.  Having concluding his discussion of the mode and extent of creatures’ knowledge of God’s essence, St. Thomas devotes twelve articles to various questions about the names given to God.  This question is, in a way, the logical foundation of the Summa.  Here St. Thomas explains the mode of signification of language used to speak about God and attempts to resolve various difficulties that result from the dissimilitude between God and creatures.

2.  As should be expected, Thomas begins his treatment of the divine names with an “An sit?” type question: Whether any name befits God at all.  He gives three objections.

3.  The first is from Denys, who says there can be no name for God.  The second is from a dichotomy: a name (nomen, the root of our “noun”) is either abstract (e.g. “white” or “squishy”) or concrete (e.g. “turtle” or “oak tree”).  A concrete name cannot be said of God because God is simple and immaterial.  An abstract name cannot be said of God because abstract names, being abstracted from things, do not signify subsistent beings.

4.  The third involves a division of the various parts of speech into the categories.  In nouns, we name substances by their qualities; verbs name them by their activity in time; pronouns by their relations to other things; demonstrative and relative pronouns either by their corporeal presence or by their relation to other things.  But God has no qualities or accidents, because he is absolutely simple; he has no time, because he is eternal; he cannot be felt or seen or sensed in any way and thus cannot be pointed out by corporeal presence; and he cannot be named by a relative pronoun, since such a name depends on some prior noun or demonstrative or participle in order to have meaning.

5.  In the Corpus he cites Aristotle’s book On Interpretation, where we find the principle that words are signs of ideas, which are likeness of things.  Whatever we can have an idea of, then, we can give a name to.  But we demonstrated in the previous question (1.12.12) that it was possible to know God in the present life indirectly, as the principle of created things, as exceeding them in all their actual excellence, and as differing from them by his lack of every imperfection.  Thus from our knowledge of creatures and the names given to them to designate their perfections we can derive names applicable to God, who has the same perfections superabundantly.  However, these names derived from creatures name God only indirectly and do not define his essence.

6.  To the first objection he says that God is said to be above any name because his essence exceeds everything we know and express in language based on natural knowledge.

7.  To the second he says that we name God by the abstract names taken from creatures, because they are simple (unlike the material supposits we abstract them from), and we name him by concrete names taken from creatures, because they have subsistence (unlike the qualities abstracted from creatures).  But in God quality and subsistence are one, so our names fail to perfectly grasp his mode of being, even though each kind of name can designate something that exists in God under a higher mode.

7.  In the response to the third he lays out the different ways that parts of speech can refer to God: nouns refer to God inasmuch as we use them to designate a supposit, because God is subsistent, like what is designated by ordinary concrete nouns.  And because we use what is complex and concrete (which we can naturally perceive and understand) to refer to what is simple and incorporeal, we use verbs of God to signify his eternity, since eternity is present in all time, without being temporal itself.  Then as regards demonstrative and relative pronouns, he says that these always point back, not to some concrete perceived thing, but to what is understood in the mind about God.  Thus we can call God “the almighty” (which names him by a quality), we can say that he is the maker of heaven and earth (which names him by a temporal act), and we can refer to him as “He Who Is”, which employs pronouns.  This reply may seem pedantic and overly technical, but errors that arise from bad answers to this question have plagued the church for centuries.


- Denys says that God is above every name.
- God cannot be named by either abstract or concrete names.
- God cannot be named by nouns, which designate qualities, or verbs which designate action in time, or pronouns which depend on corporeal presence or are meaningful only by reference to some other kind of name.

- Words are signs of things understood.
- Something can be named to the extent that it can be known.
- God can be known in this life by way of remotion from creatures and by way of eminence relative to their perfections.
- Therefore he can be named.

- He is above every name because his essence transcends the names we can devise based on creatures.  But he can still be named.
- We use concrete names to signify the subsistence and perfection of God, and abstract names to signify his simplicity.
- Nouns refer to God’s subsistence, Verbs refer to his eternity by relating it to time, pronouns refer to him by designating what is understood in the mind.

Faith is a Kind of Knowledge


1.  Finally, he asks about the knowledge of God to be had in the present life through grace, and whether it is higher than the knowledge of God available through the use of natural reason.  He gives three objections.

2.  First he cites Denys, to the effect that even one who knows God through grace in the present life, knows him without knowing his essence, and therefore in effect does not know him at all.  This same sort of unknowing is what characterizes the indirect knowledge available through natural reason, though, so it seems that the knowledge given in grace is not essentially higher.

3.  Second, he observes that both the knowledge given through grace and the knowledge possible through natural reason are acquired by the use of the imagination.  Thus, passing through the same faculty, one cannot be essentially higher than the other.

3.  Third, he quotes Gregory the Great, who seems to distinguish between faith and knowledge.  Thus if the faith given through grace in this life is not knowledge, then it cannot be a knowledge superior to that available through natural reason.

4.  For the Sed Contra he cites Paul, who contrasts the knowledge given in faith with the the ignorance of the pagan philosophers.

5.  In the Corpus he explains how the knowledge we have through grace is superior to naturally available knowledge of God.  He says that both kinds of knowledge depend on images received and the intelligible light which enables us to abstract the forms from those things.  Intelligible light, recall from earlier in this question, is another way of referring to the power of the intellect to receive a given form, i.e. to make intelligible to itself an object it is united to.

6.  Now, under natural reason, the images by which we know God are the images of ordinary sensible things, and the intelligible light by which we understand them is our own natural power of understanding.  But under grace, the natural light of the human intellect is augmented by the light of grace, so that what we understand of God from sensible things and from the accounts given to us of revealed truth, is more intelligible.  Additionally, in some cases under grace the mind is given images and other phantasms which conduce to supernatural understanding of divine things otherwise unavailable to the human intellect.  His illustration of this is the appearance of the voice from heaven and the dove at the baptism of Christ.

7.  He answers the objections as follows.  To the first he says while knowledge given through grace in the present life is not adequate to know God’s essence, this knowledge does give us a greater ability to know him through his effects, and are introduced into certain mysteries of the divine essence (e.g. the Trinity).

8.  To the second he says that even though the imagination is employed, images received through grace or made more intelligible by the light of grace disclose greater knowledge than they could by the merely natural use of our faculties.

9.  To the third he reaffirms that faith is a kind of knowledge, inasmuch as through faith the intellect is determined to a knowable object (God revealing himself), but it differs from both ordinary knowledge and the vision of God’s essence in that the determination or reference to the object is not made by vision of the object, but by seeing the one who testifies to the object.  Interestingly this puts faith in an odd position.  In terms of the way the evidence of faith is held, it is in a way inferior to the ordinary sciences available to the human mind, where the first principles can be known directly in experience.  Faith does not give us a perfect science of its object, because its ultimate object is the essence of God, which is hidden from us in the wayfaring state.  Nevertheless, because the testimony of faith is believed on the authority of God himself revealing himself, its evidence outstrips that of any naturally available science.  


- Denys says that in this life all our knowledge of God is as of one unknown.
- Faith and Natural Reason both acquire knowledge through the imagination.
- The object of faith is unseen and therefore faith is not knowledge.

- Natural knowledge is based on the natural light of the intellect and images received from sensible objects.
- Under grace the light of the intellect is augmented supernaturally, so that we can see more of the divine nature in sensible objects we behold.
- Under grace sometimes images and visions are given which are matter for a more profound understanding of divine things.

- In faith we know the effects of God more clearly, and know certain mysteries of the Essence unavailable in natural knowledge.
- By the light of grace the images received in the imagination are more conducive to knowledge of God.
- In faith the intellect is determined to a particular knowable object, not by vision but by testimony.

Can God be known by the natural use of reason?


1.  Next he asks whether God can be known by natural reason.  He gives three objections.  The first is from Boethius, who says that reason is incapable of grasping simple forms.  The second is from the fact that natural reason depends on the imagination from which it abstracts intelligible species.  But imagination has only sensible objects, and therefore God cannot be grasped by it.  Third, he says, citing Augustine, that knowledge of God can be had only by the good, whereas natural knowledge can be had by anyone.

2.  His Sed Contra is from the great passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans concerning the natural knowledge of God.

3.  In the Corpus he gives the principle of natural human knowledge of God.  We can naturally know those things given to us through the senses, or which the things we encounter in our senses point us to.  Since we can never experience God by sensation, natural human knowledge is inadequate to know God in his essence.  However the evidence of material realities discoverable through the senses is sufficient to prove the existence of God, and certain characteristics which follow necessarily from the idea of God as the cause of all creatures.  However, this is still infinitely less than the knowledge of God through his essence, since such knowledge is proportioned to the effects, which are infinitely outstripped in this case by the excellence of their cause.

4.  He replies to the objections as follows: First, that the power of reason cannot grasp the absolutely simple by itself, but can determine the existence of such a thing.  Second, that God is known through creatures by the images of his effects, from which is goodness and power are made known.  Third, he distinguishes between the knowledge of God under grace or glory, which is limited to the good, and the knowledge available by natural reason, which is common to all.


- Boethius says the mind cannot grasp what is absolutely simple.
- God cannot be imagined, but imagination is necessary for human knowledge.
- Only the good can know God, but everyone can know what they know by reason.

- Natural knowledge originates in the senses.
- What can be known naturally is either directly sensible or is demonstrable by the evidence of the senses.
- God cannot be known directly by natural reason, but his existence and certain attributes can be known, insofar as sensible things point to him as their cause.

- The mind cannot naturally grasp the simple, but can ascertain its existence.
- God’s image is given to the mind inasmuch as it is imprinted on all of creation.
- Only the good can know God under grace or glory, but natural knowledge is available to both good and bad.

No Heaven on Earth


1.  Having answered various questions regarding the nature and extent of the vision of God given to the blessed, Thomas devotes the last three articles of this question to the ways of knowing God available to those still in the wayfaring state.  He begins by asking whether anyone in the present life can see God through his Essence, and he provides four objections.

2.  The first is from the patriarch Jacob, who says that he has seen the face of God.  The second is from the words of God given in the book of Numbers, where he says that he speaks directly to Moses without any mediation.  The third is from certain passages in Augustine, which seem to indicate that knowledge of the divine essence is the basis for all our other knowledge and judgments of things.  The fourth is from a clever equivocation drawing on the fact (as proved above, cf. 1.8.3) that God is present in the mind by his essence.  Since the things which are in the mind in their essences are known by the mind, God must be known in this life.

3.  The Sed Contra is from Exodus: no one shall look upon God and live.

4.  The Corpus of this article contains an odd argument, which seems inconclusive.  He says that it is impossible for the human soul to see God in the present life, because the mode of knowledge follows from the nature of the knower, and thus a mind which is immersed in matter and naturally apt to receive only material forms cannot receive the vision of the Essence of God, until it is separated from matter, since then it will be better disposed to receive this vision.

5.  The argument is puzzling because in this very question he has affirmed his belief that St. Paul received temporarily a vision of God in his essence during his lifetime.  He will also affirm later on that the human soul of Christ possessed the beatific vision during his life on earth.  Furthermore, after the general resurrection, the souls of the blessed will be united with their glorified bodies, and yet will not be deprived of the vision of God.  Thus the argument is only an argument from the disposition of the soul given its union with a body, or from the un-fittingness of a human in the wayfaring state receiving the beatific vision.  As such an argument it works well.

6.  To the first objection he replies by citing Dionysius, who interprets this and similar passages as referring to mental images or phantasms or elevated contemplative states given to individuals by God, which are nonetheless distinct from the vision of his essence.

7.  In response to the second objection he explains that the vision of God granted to Moses and Paul is a miracle which exceeds the common order of things, but does not negate that order.

8.  To the third, he explains that God underlies every act of the intellect because the light of the intellect is a participated light received from God, without which we would be incapable of discerning anything or knowing anything, even naturally.

9.  He answers the fourth by distinguishing between God’s presence in the blessed which is by way of intelligibility, and his presence in wayfarers, which is by essence presence and power, as explained above.


- Jacob saw God face to face.
- Moses and Paul saw God in this life.
- Augustine seems to say that every act of the intellect presupposes God.
- God is present by his essence in all things, but what is present by its essence in the mind is known by the mind.

- The mode of knowledge is according to the mode of the knower.
- It is unfitting that a mind immersed in material things and naturally disposed to receive only material forms, should receive the vision of God’s essence.

- This is figurative, and refers to a vision or gift of supernatural contemplation.
- Moses and Paul saw God by miracles which transcend the common order of things.
- The intellect’s acts presuppose God’s illumination in the real order, but not in the order of discovery.
- God is present in the blessed by union and intellgibility, which is not true of everything else.

The Simultaneity of Beatific Knowledge


1.  Continuing his inquiry into what is known in the vision of God’s essence, St. Thomas next asks whether the things given to those who see God to see in him are seen simultaneously or successively.  He proposes two objections.

2.  First, he cites Aristotle to the effect that only one thing is understood by the intellect at a time.  We may know many things (by habitual or potential knowledge) simultaneously, but the adversion of the mind to a particular form is exclusive.  Thus if many things are understood by those who see God, they must be understood successively.

3.  Second, he cites Augustine’s literal commentary on Genesis (in fact, a passage he has quoted above, in the discussion of angelic time, cf. 1.10.5), which seems to imply that there is succession in the angelic vision of God.

4.  For the Sed Contra he cites Augustine again, who says that “omnem scientiam nostram uno simul conspectu videbimus”.  We shall see all that we know (lit. “all our science”) by one glance.

5.  In the Corpus he cites the same principle appealed to in the first objection.  The mind can actively be informed by one idea or intelligible species at a time.  Since those who behold God are intellectually directed toward him, they see him, and whatever else they see they see in him and through him, just as one who knows the principle of a science deeply can, by thinking of that principle, simultaneously grasp many things which follow from it.  Thus the vision of things in God by the blessed is simultaneous.

6.  Note that instead of simply referring to what is seen in the divine essence, he refers to “ea quae videntur in verbo” the things which are seen in the Word.

7.  In response to the first he clarifies that when only one thing is understood by an idea, only one thing can be thought at a time, but where a single idea extends to many things, many things can be understood simultaneously in that one idea.  He gives examples of composite things which involve the simultaneous conception of various different things (e.g. “house”).

8.  To the second objection he says that the angels have succession in their natural knowledge, but the knowledge they have from the beatific vision is simultaneous.


- Only one thing can be understood by the mind at a time.
- Augustine speaks of succession in angelic understanding.

- Only one thing can be understood by the mind at a time.
- The blessed see God, therefore whatever else they see they see through him.
- Everything they see in God they see by the likenesses pre-existing in him, so that they see all that they see simultaneously in the vision of God.

- Only one idea or intelligible species can be understood by the mind at a time, but if that idea extends to many objects, then many things can be understood through it simultaneously.
- Augustine speaks of the natural succession of knowledge in the angels, and not their beatific knowledge.

The Mediation of Beatific Knowledge of Creatures


1.  Next he asks whether the things that those who see the divine essence see in God will be seen by some likeness.  He gives two objections.

2.  The first objection is that knowledge comes about by the assimilation of the knower to the known, i.e. knowledge itself is the conformity of the mind to the object known, just as sensation is the conformity of the sense faculty to what is sensed.  Thus it is impossible for there to be knowledge of an object without the mind receiving a similitude of the object into itself, so that the mind must know whatever it knows in God by some sort of received likeness.

3.  The second objection comes from the nature of memory.  In memory we keep records of things seen, which serve as likenesses by which we can think of them again in their absence.  St. Paul discusses his vision of God in rapture and thus clearly remembers things that he saw.  But if there is memory, then what is remembered is known through a likeness, therefore etc.

4.  His Sed Contra is taken from the analogy between our knowledge of things in God and seeing by reflection in a mirror.  We see what we see in a mirror by the same means that we see the mirror itself.  But we see the essence of God without recourse to any likeness.  Therefore whatever we see in God is seen in the same manner, and not by any likeness.

5.  His answer in the Corpus is rather intricately stated.  He affirms the principle of the objections: that what is known is known insofar as the likeness of the known is in the knower.  But he observes that in the vision of the divine essence, what is known is known by union with God, and not by a received similitude.  So in the knower, what is known is not known by a similitude.  However, the forms of things exist in God not as themselves, but as likenesses.  So what is known in God is known by a likeness, but a likeness in God and not in the knower.  More will be said about the likenesses of things in God later on (1.15).

6.  One further note about the Corpus of this article: St. Thomas returns again to the distinction between knowing a thing by apprehending its image in another thing, and knowing it by apprehending it itself (cf. 1.4.3 and 1.12.2), and again he says that when a thing is known through an image of it, it is only known as it is in the image and not as it is in itself.

7.  In response to the first objection he says that the intellect is assimilated to what is seen in God not by a likeness in the intellect but by a likeness in God, to which the intellect is immediately united.

8.  The second objection is solved by observing that some of the powers of the mind form images of what is known, as for example the imagination when it synthesizes an image of something never seen based on two things actually seen.  His example is a golden mountain, but we might also think of a unicorn, or a statue made out of chicken kidneys, etc.  The memory likewise forms images of what is known, and thus he supposes that Paul’s mind formed in itself a likeness of what he saw in God when the vision was given to him.  But of course this vision by an image or likeness in the memory differs from the original apprehension of the thing by union.


- What is known is known by assimilation to the knower, i.e. by the formation of a likeness to the known in the knower.
- St. Paul remembered what he had seen in God after the vision had been removed, thus there was a likeness in him by which he remembered, and so he must have known by means of a likeness.

- The act of knowing depends on the assimilation of the knower to the thing known.
- This assimilation may happen in two ways: either by the direct apprehension of what is known, or by the apprehension of the object through its likeness in something that is directly known.
- In the vision of God’s essence we know without recourse to a similitude, but what we know in him of other things is known by a similitude pre-existing in him.

- The intellect of the one who sees God is assimilated to the things known in God by union with the divine essence, and not by the reception of a similitude.
- St. Paul’s memory formed an image of what was known, but this does not imply that what was known was known originally by an image or likeness.

What the Blessed See in God


1.  Next he asks whether those who see the essence of God will see everything in God.  He gives four objections.  The first is from a line in the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great.  The second is from the idea of God as a mirror of creation.  The third from the fact that to know God is to know God’s power, which extends to all things.  The fourth is that the natural desire to know won’t be satisfied until it knows all things, so unless those who see God see everything in him, the beatific vision won’t make them happy.

2.  For the Sed Contra he cites Denys, who says that the inferior angels do not know all things.  He also points out that the angels can’t know future contingent things or the thoughts of the heart, since only God knows these things.

3.  The argument given in the Corpus is fairly simple: creatures exist in God the way an effect exists in its cause.  The more perfectly the cause is known, the more perfectly its effects will be known, so the limit of the knowledge of creatures to be gained through the direct apprehension of God is proportionate to the perfection of the creature’s vision of God.  And since no creature can know God comprehensively, as established in the previous article, no creature can know everything in God to the fullest extent, but only to the extent granted by the share of glory given to it.

4.  In response to the first objection he explains that Gregory means only to indicate that seeing God is sufficient to see all things, because all things pre-exist in him by his power, not that in knowing God all things are comprehended in him, which is impossible.

5.  To the second, he says that the analogy to the mirror only applies if one’s vision comprehends the entire mirror, which is not the case with the creature’s vision of God.

6.  The third is answered more or less in the Corpus: once the greater principle is known, the lesser effects of the principle are also known from it, but the knowledge of the effects is proportioned to the knowledge of the principle, and so as long as the knowledge of the principle remains short of comprehension, the knowledge of the effects need not be exhaustive.

7.  To the fourth he explains that the perfection of the intellect lies in receiving all the abstract forms of things: their species and genera and aspects (rationes), but not in the knowledge of individuals that belong to them.  So for the satisfaction of the natural desire of rational creatures, it suffices to know the former in God, and not every particular.  But over and above this, the knowledge of God in itself is enough to satisfy human nature, since the goodness of God and the perfection that belongs to the vision of him in glory so far outstrip any other possible perfection that a creature could not fail to be happy in that state, even if other things were lacking.


- Gregory seems to say so.
- We see everything in God as we would see everything in a mirror.
- Whoever understands the greater can understand the lesser which follows from it.
- Unless the rational creature knows all things, its natural inclination will be unsatisfied.

- Just as it is impossible for a creature to know God perfectly, so it is possible to know his effects perfectly.

- Gregory does not mean to imply that those who see God comprehend his power and effects.
- We only see everything in a mirror if our vision of the mirror is comprehensive.
- Whoever understands the greater can understand the lesser, insofar as he understands the greater.
- The knowledge of species, genera, and aspects suffices, but even short of this the vision of God is enough for any creature’s happiness.

Comprehending the Divine Essence


1.  Next he asks whether creatures blessed with the vision of God through his Essence can comprehend God.  He gives three objections.

2.  The first objection is from a reading of certain passages in St. Paul.  The second is from a definition of comprehension given in Augustine, and the fact of God’s simplicity: if he is seen in his essence, he is seen totally.  

3.  The third is subtler: if we distinguish between seeing the whole of a thing and seeing it wholly, the difference must arise either on the part of the seer or the thing seen.  It cannot be on the part of the thing seen, because to see God through his Essence is to see him as he is, and he is his essence, which is utterly simple.  It cannot be on the part of the seer, because the full power of the intellect is extended in the act of beholding.  Thus since there is totality on the part of the thing seen and the one seeing, it seems that there would have to be totality of vision, which is comprehension.

4.  For the Sed Contra he quotes Jeremiah.

5.  In the Corpus he begins by defining comprehension as the perfect knowledge of a thing, i.e. knowing it insofar as it is knowable.  To comprehend a thing is to know it by the highest mode of knowledge possible for it: thus if a thing can be known by scientific demonstration but is only known by probable demonstration or conjecture, then it is not comprehended.  But a thing is knowable to the extent that it is actual, and the actuality of God is infinite (cf. Q.7, A.1), so he is infinitely knowable.  But nothing other than God can attain to his infinity (Q.7, A.2), and so since every intellect receives the form of its object according to its own nature, whatever is of a finite nature cannot receive something infinite into itself.  The light of glory enables each creature to know God, but only to know him finitely.  How this is possible he explains further in the replies to the objections.

6.  In response to the first objection, he distinguishes two senses of “comprehension”.  In one sense comprehension is complete inclusion in the one comprehending.  In the other sense comprehension is taken more broadly as the ultimate fulfillment of a tendency: what is comprehended is held finally and to the fullest extent.

7.  Here he establishes a threefold correspondence between the aspects of the soul’s beatitude and the three theological virtues:  vision itself corresponds to faith, comprehension (i.e. the finality of the union attained) corresponds to hope, and enjoyment (fruitio) corresponds to charity.

8.  His response to the second objection clarifies the Corpus somewhat.  He draws an analogy to the difference between probable and scientific knowledge.  When someone knows by probable argument (from authority or intuition) that a certain judgment is true, the full contents of the judgment are available to the one who knows, just as they are available to the one who knows by scientific demonstration.  But it remains true that even though the same object is wholly known in both cases, the object is known less perfectly by the one who lacks a scientific understanding, because the fullness of what the object is is not available under the aspect of probable knowledge.  Our mode of understanding, even when informed by the light of glory, can never be adequate to the infinite intelligibility of the Divine Essence, but we are still given to know God fully, as he is in himself.

9.  To the third objection he says that the lack of totality is to be taken on the part of the object known, because even though in the beatific vision all of God is known, the mode of the object exceeds the mode of the knower (as explained immediately above), so that God is known as he is, and this knowledge includes a knowledge that God’s infinity exceeds the possibility of creaturely knowledge.  He again makes the analogy to probable vs. scientific knowledge: the one who knows by probable knowledge can know that there is a scientific demonstration for what he knows, without himself having that demonstration at hand.


- Paul (in the Vulgate) speaks of “comprehension” as the goal of earthly life.
- Augustine defines comprehension as total knowledge of a thing, and if we know God through his essence, we must know him totally.
- If there is a lack of totality of knowledge, it must be either on the part of the object or on the part of the application of the power of the knower to the object.  Neither can be the case here.

- The knowledge of an agent is proportionate to its nature.
- The knowability of an object is proportionate to its actuality.
- God’s actuality is infinite, and no creature’s ability to know is infinite.
- Thus there is a lack of perfect comprehension in creatures which know God through his essence.

- Comprehension here indicates finality and permanence of attainment.
- The whole object is known, but the mode of the object exceeds the mode of the knower.
- The lack of totality is on the part of the object, since the full actuality of God exceeds the capacity of any creature, even with the light of glory.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Order of the Blessed


1.  The next section of this question deals with the different qualities of the beatific vision of the divine essence.  First, he asks whether one person sees God more perfectly than another through this vision.  He gives three objections.

2.  First, he quotes 1 John 3:2 again, and points out that God is in only one way, so that all must see him in the same way when they see him through his essence.  Second, he quotes Augustine saying that one person cannot see the same thing more perfectly than another.  The third objection is more complex.  He points out that a thing can be seen more perfectly either on account of the visibility of the object or the seer’s power of vision.  Since the visibility of the object cannot differ if God is seen through his essence, then any difference would have to arise on account of the difference of the power of those seeing God.  But since men are promised equality with angels in beatitude, this inequality of power seems to be ruled out.

3.  The Sed Contra is based on St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:41 when he is discussing the degrees of glory in the general resurrection.

4.  In the Corpus he explains that of those who see the essence of God, one will see more perfectly than another, not because of a more perfect likeness, but because a greater share in the light of glory, which illuminates the intellect to receive the vision of God’s essence.  And he says further that this difference as to illumination is on account of a greater share of charity, because the more charity there is, the more desire for union with God and this desire is a kind of receptivity to the perfection given in glory.  Thus where there is greater charity, there will be greater illumination, and where there is greater illumination there will be greater perfection of vision.

5.  He answers the objections briefly: first, that verse says “we shall see him as he is” to indicate that we shall see his existence itself.  It dies not specify the degree of perfection of that vision.  To the second he says that two people cannot understand the reality of a thing in contradictory ways (which is what Augustine means), but this does not mean that one person cannot grasp the reality more perfectly than another.  To the third he says that the diversity of perfection in the vision of God arises neither on the part of the natural faculty of understanding nor on the part of the visible object, but on account of the degree of supernatural perfection given to the intellectual faculty in glory.


- In knowing God essentially we can only know him one way.
- One cannot understand a thing more than another, says Augustine.
- Difference in understanding would have to be on the part of the natural power to understand, which is ruled out.

- One sees God’s Essence more perfectly than another, not on account of a more perfect likeness, nor on account of a greater natural perfection, but on account of a greater share in the supernatural illumination of the light of glory.
- The light of glory is received more by those who have a greater desire for God in charity.

- Only one way through his essence, but to different degrees.
- If one disagrees with the other about a thing, one of them is wrong, but one can understand better than another, and still be grasping the same thing.
- The difference is not on account of the perfection of the natural power but on account  of the perfection of the power as supernaturally perfected in grace.

The Light of Glory


1.  In the fifth article of this question, St. Thomas looks into the nature of the light by which the divine essence is made intelligible to created intellects, which is called the “light of glory”.  That there is such a light is defined by the Council of Vienne (the 15th Ecumenical Council of the Church) in the decree Ad nostrum qui. (Cf. DH 895, where the proposition is condemned “Quod quaelibet intellectualis natura in se ipsa naturaliter est beata, quodque anima non indiget lumine gloriae, ipsam elevante ad Deum videndum et eo beate fruendum.”  That any intellectual nature is blessed in itself, and the soul does not require the light of glory elevating it to God in order to see him or enjoy him beatifically.)  It is also referenced (as St. Thomas notes) in St. John’s Apocalypse 21:23.

2.  He gives three objections:  First, that God is supremely intelligible in himself and does not require any other light by which to be seen, just as we could not possibly render the sun visible by holding a candle to it.  Second, that if God is seen through a created medium, then he is not seen through his essence.  Third, that if the essence of God is seen through some created thing, then that created thing would not need anything further to see the essence of God, which would make it naturally adequate to this knowledge, which we have just shown is impossible.

3.  The Sed Contra is from Psalm 35 (36), In lumine tuo videbimus lumen.

4.  In the Corpus he explains somewhat what is meant by the “light of glory”.  In the second article of this question he had said that the intellectual power is a kind of light, and the intellects of creatures are like created lights.  Hence when we speak of the “light of glory” we don’t mean a separate entity or subsisting medium by which God’s Essence is communicated to the intellect of a creature.  Rather, the light of glory is the augmentation of the power of the intellectual light of the created intellect that makes it receptive to the Divine Essence, so that it can know God directly.  It is not correct to call the light of glory a “medium” of knowledge except secundum quid, inasmuch as it is the dispositive cause by which the intellect is made capable of receiving beatific knowledge.  And this light is necessary because the power of the intellect is so inferior to the Essence of God that without direct supernatural intervention it would be impossible for a creature to know God as he is in himself.

5.  To the objections he says first, that the light of glory makes the creature receptive to the Divine Essence; it does not augment God’s intrinsic intelligibility.  Second, that the light of glory is not a likeness through which God is seen, but a perfection of the intellect that gives it the strength to see God directly.  Third, he points out that the disposition to know God through his essence can only belong by nature to a creature that is adequate to know that essence by nature.  But there is no such creature.  Hence the disposition is supernatural in everything that receives it.


- God is supremely intelligible, and needs no light to make him intelligible.
- If he is known through a medium, then he is not known through his essence.
- If he is known through some created thing, then that creature is naturally adequate to know God through his essence, which is impossible.

- The created intellect is like a light, which illuminates to the creature only those things to which its light is adequate.
- God is the supreme light, and thus to be adequate to know God, the created intellect must receive an augmentation to its power that makes it ready to receive the Divine Essence intellectually.
- This dispositive cause of the vision of the divine essence in creatures is called the light of glory.

- The light of glory does not make God more intelligible; it makes the creature more capable of receiving that intelligibility.
- The light of glory is not a likeness of God, but a perfection of the intellect that makes it receptive to God.
- No created thing could have in its nature the stable disposition to receive the divine essence, unless it were naturally apt to know God through his essence, which is impossible.

The Inadequacy of Natural Knowledge of God


1.  Next he asks whether it is possible for any creature to know God’s Essence by its own natural power.  This article clarifies certain points about the operation of the human intellect.  It also establishes that the angelic intellect, superior though it is, remains by nature infinitely distant from God, and requires grace to know him in his Essence.

2.  He gives three objections:  the first is from a passage in Denys, where he says that the Angelic nature reflects the whole beauty of God.  If the angelic nature is so proportioned to reflect God in this way, then it would seem naturally apt to know him in his essence.

3.  The second objection is based on the supposition that we cannot see God naturally on account of the limitations of our understanding caused by its dependence on the body.  If angels are not limited in their knowledge by the use of bodily organs, then surely they must be capable of knowing God naturally as he is.

4.  The third objection is that since sense organs are not capable of naturally knowing God, and cannot be elevated to know him, then it seems that if no intellect is capable of knowing him naturally, then knowledge of God’s Essence by creatures would be utterly impossible.

5.  For the Sed Contra he combines citations from St. John’s Gospel and St. Paul to create a neat syllogism: The knowledge of God is eternal life.  Eternal life is made possible by grace.  Therefore to know the divine essence is a matter of grace, not nature.

6.  In the Corpus he argues as follows:  Knowledge is granted to a thing to the extent that the known is present in it.  Knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of his knowing, and therefore according to the mode of his nature.  So if the mode of being of a thing known exceeds the mode of the nature of the thing knowing, knowledge of that thing is necessarily above the nature of the knower.  Having established this principle, he sets out to apply it.

7.  First he distinguishes the different ways of being of things known: some are limited to a particular bit of matter (this coffee cup), others can exist in matter generally (coffee cups), others do not exist in matter at all but subsist as immaterial forms that receive their existence from another (angels), but God alone is a subsistent immaterial form who does not receive his being from another.

8.  Next he describes what humans can know: our soul is the form of a material body, and is thus naturally suited to know material things and the forms of material things: by the power of sense, which regards individuals, and by the power of understanding, which abstracts universal forms from individual objects of sense.  This is as far as our power to know extends.  By nature we cannot know forms that are not abstracted from matter except indirectly, by their effects on material things.  Thus humans are naturally incapable of knowing God through his essence.

9.  The angels on the other hand do not subsist as the form of some material thing, nor is their knowledge dependent on the abstraction.  They understand things through their own essences, a point which will be discussed later on (Q.55).  But it is impossible that an Angel should possess by its own nature a form adequate to the Divine Essence, which exceeds all things.  Angels can naturally know God in themselves to the extent that God’s likeness exists in them, but knowledge by way of likeness is (as established in Article 2) inadequate for knowledge of God through his Essence.

10.  In response to the first objection he says that the Angelic nature is a likeness of God, and thus through himself an angel knows God by way of likeness, but not through his essence.  To the second he says that the angelic intellect is not defective in itself, but only relative to the supreme perfection of God’s knowledge.

11.  To the third objection he responds by distinguishing the way sight knows from the way the intellect knows: bodily vision always knows sensible singulars, and only sensible singulars, and it is incomprehensible to talk about seeing an abstract idea with the eye, or seeing something that is immaterial.  Bodily sight is essentially tied to matter.  But intellectual vision is not tied to matter except accidentally.  Though ordinarily in humans intellectual sight is limited to forms abstracted from sensible things, it is possible for the intellect to know things separate from sensible realities, and thus where bodily vision cannot (on account of its very essence) be elevated to the sight of spiritual realities, intellectual vision can, by grace.


- Denys says that the angelic nature is a pure mirror of God.
- The angelic intellect is not impeded by association with a body.
- If the intellect cannot naturally know God, then nothing can.

- Knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of the knower, and thus according to the nature of the knower.
- In humans natural knowledge extends so far as forms abstracted from material things.
- In angels natural knowledge extends to the likeness they have in themselves of God.
- Neither of these are adequate for knowledge of the Divine Essence.

- Denys is talking about the likeness angels have to God by nature.
- The angelic intellect is not defective in itself, but relative to God.
- The intellect, being immaterial, can be elevated to know things above it in a way that the bodily sense organs cannot.

"Eye Hath Not Seen"


1.  Next he asks whether God’s Essence can be seen with bodily eyes.  The answer to this question is so straightforward that one might wonder why he bothers to dedicate an article to it.  This is one of those articles devoted primarily to the meeting of objections.

2.  There are three objections: two from scripture and one from Augustine.  The first is from the book of Job, who says he has seen God with his eyes and heard him with his ears.  The second is from Augustine, who describes the vision of our eyes in the resurrected state and attributes to them the power to see incorporeal things.  The third is from the book of Isaiah, who says that in a vision (which Aquinas takes to mean a phantasm of the imagination) he saw the Lord seated on a throne.  Since the power of the imagination is based on the organs of sight, it must be possible to see God with bodily eyes.

3.  The Sed Contra is from Augustine’s letter On Seeing God, where he says that it is impossible to see God as corporeal things are seen.  

4.  The Corpus is extremely brief: Bodily sight is a power seated in a corporeal organ, which receives the forms of corporeal things.  It cannot receive the forms of non-corporeal things, and since God is incorporeal, the bodily eye cannot see God.

5.  As for the objections, he gives a metaphorical reading to the texts from Job, places the passage from Augustine in a context that qualifies and explains it, and explains that in visions images are given that communicate some truth about God, not the vision of his essence itself.


- Job says that he has seen and heard God.
- Augustine says that in our glorified bodies we will see spiritual things with our eyes.
- Isaiah speaks of seeing God enthroned.

- The power of bodily vision is seated in a corporeal organ.
- The receptivity of that organ is solely to corporeal forms.
- God is incorporeal.

- Job speaks metaphorically.
- Augustine speaks conditionally.
- Isaiah’s vision is a sign and not a vision of God’s Essence.

The Inadequacy of any Likeness to Communicate God's Essence


1.  As we proceed through this question, we see once again the old “An est?” -> “Quid est?” structure that ordered several of the earlier questions.  Having established in A.1 that there is some way by which created intellects can know God through his essence, Thomas sets out to determine what that way is.  Articles 2-5 deal with the question of how the divine essence is apprehended by creatures, Articles 6-10 deal with particular characteristics of this knowledge, and Articles 11-13 deal with the connection between knowledge of the Divine Essence and knowledge available in the present life.

2.  The second article asks whether the created intellect sees the Divine Essence through some sort of likeness, or directly.  He gives three objections: First, he quotes 1 John, saying “then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  St. John seems to give the fact that we will know God as evidence for our likeness to him.  This suggests that the likeness is necessary for the knowledge, and therefore that we know by means of the likeness.

3.  The second objection is from Augustine, who says that when we know God, a likeness of God is made in us.  The third is that the intellect, when it knows a thing, is conformed to what it knows, and knows by its own act.  Thus if the created intellect knows God, it knows him by being made into a likeness of God.

4.  The Sed Contra is taken from Augustine, discussing St. Paul’s line in 1 Cor 13, where he explains the phrase “per speculum et in aenigmate” as referring to likenesses by which God is understood.  Since the vision of God through his essence is not enigmatic or speculative (speculative knowledge being knowledge had indirectly, through the reflection of other things known directly), thus the Divine Essence is not known through any likeness.

5.  The Corpus of this article is one of those extraordinarily illuminating bits of writing for which St. Thomas is dearly loved.  He begins by clarifying what is necessary for vision: the power of sight and the union of the the thing seen with sight.  He illustrates the principle with sensible sight, and then elevates it to intellectual sight.

6.  In sensible sight, the union between sight and what is seen is only by way of likeness, because material things (e.g. rocks) cannot be present in the eye or the visual faculty, but only a form corresponding to the form in the thing, which is a likeness of it but not its very substance.  

7.  With God, though, it is impossible that a likeness could be the means by which he is known through his Essence.  Here the work done in Q.4 A.3 becomes useful.  Recall what was said in the response to the fourth objection of that article:  the direction of similitude proceeds from the likeness to what it is a likeness of, since a sort of effaced version of the form of the original can be seen in any likeness of it, to one who knows the original.  But without knowledge of the original, a likeness becomes incapable of conveying the essence of what it portrays except indirectly (this “indirectly” will be clarified in Q.13, A.5).

8.  Thomas defends this point in the present article by citing Denys, to the effect that superior things cannot be known by the likeness of inferior things.  He then bolsters the argument with two others: since God is his own existence and does not have his form in common with anything else, no likeness of God can represent his essence, because nothing is adequate to it.  And again, because God’s essence contains virtually by his power the likeness of everything else, nothing could possibly represent it adequately in its simplicity.

9.  As a clue to how we can know the Divine Essence, he notes that “if the same thing were both the principle of the power of sight and the thing being seen, it would be necessary that the one seeing  would have from that thing both the power of sight and the form by which it saw.”  He points out that since the created intellect has its power of understanding by participation in God’s own intellectual operation, the power of the intellect is proportionate to its participation in God’s self-knowledge: by nature, grace, or glory.  And at the conclusion of the Corpus he says that God himself must bolster the intellect by the light of glory, so that he causes simultaneously the power of vision and the union of the seer with what is seen.  The nature of this light will be investigated in subsequent articles.

10.  He answers the objections very briefly:  First, St. John is speaking of the similitude cause in the intellect by the illumination of the light of glory.  Second, Augustine is talking about knowledge of God in this life.  Third, he explains that where the intellect normally knows an object by receiving its form in abstraction from the thing itself, in God this is not possible because God’s essence is his own existence.  Where an abstracted form actualizes the intellect normally, God himself actualizes the intellect by union through the light of glory.  Thus the beatific vision differs from other forms of knowledge in that here an object is not held in abstract from its existence, but is received passively by direct union with the knower and supernatural elevation of the knower’s  powers of understanding.


- St. John says that we know God by being like him.
- Augustine says that we know God by a created likeness in ourselves.
- In ordinary acts of understanding we know by an abstracted likeness in the intellect.

- For vision two things are necessary: the power of sight and union between sight and what is seen.
- It is impossible that we should know God through his essence by means of a created likeness:  because an inferior thing cannot adequately communicate the essence of a superior thing; because no creature can share the form of God; because every created likeness is limited and determinate in a way that God’s essence is not.
- God is known in creatures in a special way: he is both the cause of the power of sight and its object, so that in the vision of the divine essence, the creature apprehends not by abstraction but by supernatural union.

- St. John is talking about the light of glory.
- St. Augustine is talking about knowledge of God in via.
- God is the direct cause of our knowledge of his Essence: both by supplying the power and by uniting the power with the form.

Can creatures see God through his essence?


1.  Having concluded his investigation into the Existence and Essence of God considered in itself, St. Thomas sets aside two questions in order to clarify the extent and basis of our knowledge and language about God.  First, he looks into the ways God is known by creatures (Q.12), and second, because the names given to a thing follow from the way it is known, he asks about the divine names (Q.13).

2.  The first article asks whether any created intellect can see the essence of God.  Notice that St. Thomas wastes no time getting to the crux of the matter: our hope is for salvation, and salvation consists in eternal fellowship with God, who, as a spiritual being, is united to others by knowing them and being known by them, and, which follows from that, by loving and being loved.  Thus the primary question, the most practical question is whether this unity, this apprehension, is possible at all.  But this question is also primary because the subject at hand is God's Essence, and so the main question is whether that Essence can be known directly by creatures, and then how.

3.  He gives four objections.  The first is from the authority of St. John Chrysostom and Pseudo-Denys, both of whom deny that there is any knowledge of God.  Second, he says that what is infinite is unknowable, and God is infinite.  Third, only existing things are intelligible to the created intellect, but Denys says that God is “above existence”.  Fourth, that since knowledge is a perfection of the knower, there must be some proportion between what is known and the one knowing, but there cannot be any proportion between God and creatures, since they are infinitely distant.

4.  His Sed Contra is that great promise of St. John in his first epistle: “Videbimus eum sicuti est.

5.  In the Corpus he begins by laying down the principle that each thing is knowable to the extent that it is in act.  Thus God, since he is maximally actual, is maximally knowable in himself.  But the knowability of a thing in itself does not guarantee that it is knowable to every other thing, because the means by which a knower gains knowledge and the power of its intellect limit a creature’s ability to know things.  Thomas draws a comparison to the difficulty with which a bat could see the sun.

6.  Thomas offers two arguments: one from faith, the other from natural reason.  If it were impossible for a creature to see God through his essence, it would be impossible for anyone to achieve beatitude, or its beatitude would have to consist in something less than fellowship with God by this direct knowledge, which the scriptures contradict at several points.  From reason, he observes that there is a natural desire in humans to know the cause of every discovered effect.  Now no natural desire is in vain.  But if man could never come to know the first cause of things, this desire would be in vain.  So it must be possible to see the essence of God.

7.  Note with respect to the second argument: he shows that there is a desire to see God, and that that desire must be capable of some degree of satisfaction.  He does not show that by nature the means of satisfaction are known, or that natural modes of knowledge suffice to satisfy the desire.  But the desire remains a natural desire, i.e. one belonging prior to grace to the nature of the human person.  Various dangerous errors arise from a lack of subtlety on these points.

8.  He answers the first objection by distinguishing between the vision of apprehension and the vision of comprehension.  It is possible for creatures to see God through his essence by apprehension, but utterly impossible for a created intellect to comprehend the divine essence.  Denys and Chrysostom are both speaking of comprehension.  More will be said about this in the seventh article of this question.

9.  To the second he says that the infinity of material quantity cannot be known because it is not terminated by a form, and thus is lacking formal determination it lacks both existence and intelligibility.  Things are knowable to the extent that they are actual, and we know things by their forms.  But God is not infinite by an infinity of material quantity: he is infinite by the total perfection of his form, which is not limited by any potency or imperfection.  And thus his infinity makes him supremely knowable.

10.  To the third he explains Denys’s phrase: “above existence” is meant to imply that God’s being exceeds that of every other being, not that God does not exist.  This excellence in being rules out comprehension of God’s essence, but not knowledge of it.

11.  The reply to the forth objection is the first account of the proportion in the Summa.  He distinguishes between proportion of quantity, as in a ratio of 1:2, and proportion as any sort of relation from one to another.  There is no proportion in the former sense, but there is in the latter, and this is the basis of the proportion by which creatures come to know God.


- Chysostom and Denys both deny the possibility of such knowledge.
- The infinite is unknowable.
- God is “above existence”.
- Knowledge requires a proportion between knower and known.

- Everything is knowable to the extent that it is actual.
- God is supremely knowable in himself.
- That creatures can come to know him can be shown from faith, which says that this is our beatitude, and from reason, which observes a natural desire in man.

- They are speaking of comprehensive knowledge.
- Infinite quantity is unknowable because it is formless.
- God’s being is above the being of other beings.
- A proportion of relation exists between God and creatures.

God is Maximally One


1.  Finally,  Thomas asks whether God is supremely one.  This article is brief and has, like the others of this question, a delightful way of simplifying complex logical considerations.  It is the last little breath before the plunge into the intermediate tract on the God’s intelligibility (QQ.12-13).  He proposes three objections.

2.  The first objection is from the lack of degrees of privation: what a thing lacks simply, it cannot lack more or less.  Since unity is a privation, nothing can be more “one” than another, insofar as it is one at all.

3.  The second objection is from the unity of what is one both actually and potentially: the point (which is absolutely geometrically one) and the unit (which is absolutely arithmetically one).  Even God cannot be more one than these.

4.  The third objection is from the fact that what is good by its essence (per essentiam) is supremely good.  Likewise what is one by its essence (per essentiam) is supremely one.  But every being is one by its own essence (since the essence is the principle of the unity of a thing, is the form by which it is whatever it is).  He cites Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Book IV, Ch.2)  in confirmation of this point.

5.  For the Sed Contra, he cites St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Consideratione (Book V, Ch. 8), where the Doctor Mellifluous attributes supreme unity to the Godhead.

6.  In the Corpus he demonstrates that God is supremely one by pointing out that to be “one” is to be an undivided being, whatever has both of these qualities to the greatest extent, is maximally “one”.  But God is utterly simple, and he is being itself, subsisting in itself, both of which were demonstrated in QQ.3-4.  So he must be maximally one.

7.  He answers the first objection by granting that, while privation does not admit of degrees according to itself, it does admit degrees according to the extent of its opposite: thus the more a thing is divided, or is capable of being divided, the less it is one.

8.  To the second he says both the point and the unit are only quantitative accidents which inhere in other things.  Thus they aren’t in themselves supremely one, since their unity is secondary to whatever they inhere in.

9.  To the third he grants that everything is one by its substance, but not every substance gives unity to the same extent: some things are simple and others are composite.  Thus the unity of a jar of olives is less than the unity of a rod of iron, which is less than the unity of the soul, which is less than God’s unity.


- Privations do not admit of degrees.
- The point and the unit are supremely one.
- Everything is one by its own essence, and therefore supremely one.

- To be one is to be an undivided being.
- God is supremely simple.
- God is supremely being.

- Privations admit degrees on account of the actuality or potency of their opposites.
- The point and the unit are quantitative features of other things, and therefore, lacking their own being, cannot have supremacy as regards unity of being.
- Everything is one by its own essence, but not every substance gives unity to the same extent.

God is One


1.  Having settled the most pressing logical considerations concerning unity, St. Thomas asks the expected question: whether God is one.  He proposes two objections.  The first is based on Scripture.  He cites St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, saying there are “many gods”.

2.  The second objection is more complex:  one cannot be attributed to God in either of the senses we have discussed: not as number, because quantity as an accident cannot be attributed to God; not as convertible with being, because in this notion one is defined by a privation (lack of division), and there are no privations in God.

3.  Both of these objections are obviously lame, and we have seen variants of them over and over again.  This is, unfortunately, because they are among the most common sorts of theological errors.  The first is from a failure to distinguish the sense of scripture correctly (cf. Q.1 AA.9-10), and the second is from a failure to distinguish a logical privation from a real privation.

4.  His Sed Contra is from the beautiful proclamation in Deuteronomy: Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.  (Audi, Israel, Dominus Deus tuus unus est.)

5.  In the Corpus he gives three arguments for God’s unity: from his simplicity, from his infinite perfection, and from the unity of the world.

6.  As regards simplicity, he observes first that the principle by which a thing is this particular thing (hoc aliquid), i.e. the principle of its individuation, is incommunicable.  The substantial form of a thing may be communicable (e.g. humanity, by generation), and all of its accidental forms (heat, by radiation), but whatever makes an individual this individual must belong to it solely.  Now, the principle of God’s identity as a hoc aliquid (a particular individual) is his own nature, because he is, in his utter simplicity, identical with his nature.  Thus to be of the nature of God is to be this God, and no other.  Therefore there can only be one God.

7.  As regards perfection, Thomas offers a demonstration by supposing the contrary: God has in himself the totality of the perfection of being.  Now, if there were many Gods, they would have to differ from each other somehow.  But the difference between them would have to be either a privation or a perfection, and either way those lacking the perfection or suffering the privation would be less than absolutely perfect in their being.  Thus there cannot be multiple Gods.

8.  As regards the unity of the world, he argues from the order of the universe: The unity of a multitude as regards its order or operation must be reduced to a unitary principle, or it goes unexplained.  (Cf. our discussion of the Fourth Way in Q.2 A.3)  The principle is multitudo non reddit rationem unitatis suae: a multitude as such cannot supply the cause of its own unity.  In essence this argument returns back to the fourth and fifth ways: what orders the multitude ought to be one, lest it too depend on some ordering principle.

9.  His replies to the objections are straightforward:  He explains the text of St. Paul by pointing out that “gods” spoken of are the gods of the pagans, who confused various planets and other things for true gods.

10.  To the second objection he clarifies that “one” as number is not predicated of God, since quantity is an accident of material things.  Numerical “one” is a mathematical concept which regards the quantity of matter, abstracted from any particular form.  On the other hand, the “one” that is convertible with being is predicated of God, and the objection fails on this count because even though according to our idea “one” is defined by the lack of division, this is only a logical and not a real privation: to be one is more perfect than to be divided.  And we have already shown that many such logical privations can be attributed to God (infinite, incorporeality, simplicity, immutability, eternity, etc.).


- St. Paul speaks of “many Gods”.
-  God cannot have quantity, nor can any privation be attributed to him.

- The principle of individuation is incommunicable: God is this God by his nature, therefore there can only be one God.
- If there were multiple Gods, they would have to differ, and some would be lacking in the perfection of others, but to be God is to be infinitely perfect.
- The unity of the world as regards order and operation must be reduced to the unity of its first cause.

- St. Paul refers to the false gods of the pagans.
- Unity of quantity is proper to material things and is not said of God.  Unity of being includes privation only logically, since the removal of imperfection is itself a perfection.

The One and the Many


1.  Taking up one of the concerns of the previous article, Thomas next asks in what way the one and the many are opposed to each other.  This article is rich and those with an appreciation for logic will find it quite beautiful.  He proposes four objections.

2.  The first is from the solution to the second objection of the previous article: every multitude is in some way one.  But if this is the case, then “one” and “many” cannot be opposed, since every instance of “many” is also an instance of “one”.  Second, he observes that a multitude is composed of individuals, and it is absurd to say that a thing is composed of its opposite.  Third, he says that “few” is the opposite of “many”, and therefore “one” cannot be its opposite.  Fourth, he says that if “one” and “many” are opposites, then they are opposed to each other as the whole (the multitude) is opposed to the parts into which it is divided (the one), but a whole is logically prior to its parts, and parts are defined relative to their whole.  A multitude, however, is defined relative to one, so that we would end up with a circular definition.

3.  For the Sed Contra he remarks that one and many differ in their definitions (rationes), and therefore differ as such: the notion of one includes lack of division, the notion of many includes division.  Thus they are opposed to each other.

4.  For the Corpus he explains how “one” and “many” are opposed for both the numerical one and the one convertible with being.  One as quantity is opposed to many because the quantitative multitude is judged to be a multitude relative to whatever measures it, which is the unit.  If we were to take some multitude as the unit of measure, it would cease logically to be a multitude (e.g. “one gross”).  On the other hand, the “one” convertible with being, it is opposed to “many” as what is divided in its being is opposed to what is perfect and undivided in its being.  More will be said on this point as we proceed.

5.  The replies to the objections contain the brunt of the substance of this question, and are extremely noteworthy.  He begins his reply to the first by noting a principle of the nature of privations: Nulla privatio tollit totaliter esse.  No privation removes the existence of a thing completely.  Privations always exist in beings, because they have only relative existence: they only exist as the lack of something in something actual.  He draws a comparison then between the privations of the terms convertible with being: the privation of goodness (i.e. evil) is in an otherwise good thing, and is founded on that thing’s goodness; the privation of unity (i.e. multitude) is in some one thing, and founded the unity of that thing, such as it is; the privation of being is also in something actual, or it is not actual at all.  “Et exinde contingit quod multitudo est quoddam unum, et malum est quoddam bonum, et non ens est quoddam ens.”

6.  However, he replies to the objection, one opposite is never predicated of the other in the same way at the same time: thus what is a multitude simpliciter though it is in some way one, cannot be one simpliciter, but only secundum quid.  Likewise what is evil simpliciter (e.g. sin) cannot be good simpliciter but only secundum quid.  And so on.

7.  He follows up this wonderful analysis with another.  In response to the second objection, he distinguishes between two sorts of wholes: homogeneous wholes and heterogeneous wholes.  A homogeneous whole is such that every part has in itself the form of the whole.  Thus a shaving of iron cut from an iron bar is just as much iron as the bar from which it was cut.  A drop of water is as much water as a lake, etc.  Heterogeneous wholes are such that none of their parts have in themselves the form of the whole: a wall is not a house, nor is an arm a man, nor is a plank a ship.  

8.  Having established this distinction, he observes that multitude is, as such, a heterogeneous whole, so that “one” makes up the being of a multitude only inasmuch as the being of the multitude depends on the being of the parts that compose it, not as though the not-multitude were the cause of the multitude of the whole.  For example, the not-house-ness of the lumber and concrete that make up a house are not the cause of the house: rather, the substance of the parts is the cause of the substance of the whole.

9.  To the third objection he distinguishes two senses of “many”: in its strict sense, “many” is opposed to one, but insofar as “many” refers to an excess or surfeit, its opposite is a few, or a paucity.

10.  He replies to the fourth objection by explaining that the order of notions in a definition depends on the order in which we come to know things.  So he lays out the order of discovery for the relevant concepts: first we are aware of a thing as being, then we we notice a lack of identity in being (“hoc ens non est illud ens”), then we conceive of division as the cause of the distinction of things, and from this we conceive of what is un-divided, i.e. the one, and finally we consider the collection of individuals as a multitude.  So the order of definition, which follows the order of discovery, would be: being, distinction, division, unity, multitude.


- Every multitude is somehow one.
- No opposite is composed of its opposites.
- The opposite of many is few.
- Circularity would result in the definition of multitude.

- “One” as the basis of number is opposed to “many” as the measure to the measured.
- “One” as convertible with “being” is opposed to “many” as the undivided to what is divided, and as perfection to privation.

- Nulla privatio tollit totaliter esse.
- Multitude is a hetereogeneous whole, and thus is composed of its parts by their being, not by their lack of multitude.
- Many is only opposed to few when taken in the sense of “plenty” or “excess”.
- The order of definition follows the order of discovery.  The order of discovery here is: being, distinction, division, unity, multitude.