Thursday, July 3, 2014

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.

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