Saturday, July 12, 2014

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.

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