Thursday, 22 April 2010

Question 12 - How God is known by us


In the first eleven questions Aquinas has built up an extraordinary picture of God, starting from creatures and working his way back to their creator, deducing various things about God using purely metaphysical demonstrations. However, at the moment, this picture of God may seem abstract and alien, being mostly based upon showing what God is not. At this stage one may be left thinking that God is unknowable and that we cannot say much about Him at all; how could we love and adore such a God? This simply will not do, so Aquinas now has to turn to the questions of how we can know God and how we are able to say things about Him in a positive sense.

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has shown that God exists and that we can affirm certain things about Him. In doing so, what he has shown is that that God’s being is in many ways utterly different from ours; there is a huge gulf between creatures and their creator. Now Aquinas starts to treat the ways in which we can bridge that gulf between us (or rather, how God bridges that gulf). It’s clear from what he has shown already that creatures can have some knowledge of God considered as first cause. However, such a picture of God is inadequate; it is time to start considering how the God known to natural reason relates to the God known through revelation. In this question, Aquinas enquires into what our finite minds can make of God, comparing what we can know by reason with what we can know by grace.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In the first article Aquinas asks the fundamental question of whether a created mind can see God’s essence. The objections are basically twofold: firstly, God is infinitely beyond us so it would seem to be impossible; secondly, various authorities imply that it is impossible. For example, scripture tells us that “No one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12). That the interpretation of this scriptural objection is not completely straightforward is shown immediately in the sed contra that quotes 1 John 3:2 to the effect that “we shall see Him as He is”.

Aquinas answers that although it might seem that God is infinitely beyond us, our ultimate happiness (which is our end) lies in the vision of God’s essence. If this were beyond us, we would be frustrated from our end and even the blessed would have to settle for an ultimate end below this. This is contrary to faith and hence incorrect. Indeed, we should recognize that something is knowable insofar as it is actual; God is pure actuality and therefore God is supremely knowable in Himself, even if He exceeds the power of any mind to fully know Him.

Turning to the objections, Aquinas points out that the authorities quoted are referring to the comprehension of God’s essence; which, as it is infinite, is certainly beyond our finite powers. (Aquinas will discuss the comprehension of God’s essence in the seventh article of this question.) Similarly, as far as the disproportion between God and ourselves is concerned, Aquinas argues that this prevents us from full comprehension of Him, but not from being able to see something of His essence. Although we cannot consider anything like a quantitative proportionality between God and His creatures, we can use the language of proportionality when we consider that creatures are related to God as effects are to their causes.

A2: When we see an everyday object, we form an image of that object in our minds (and the “image” need not simply be a visual image but one based on all the senses). It is not the essence of the thing seen that is in the mind, but an image of it; a created image. Aquinas now asks whether the same is true for the vision of God’s essence; do we see Him through some created likeness? Aquinas answers in the negative: although the power of sight needs to receive a certain image of Him to see Him, no created image is involved. There are three reasons: the first and third argue that a created image is too far below God Himself to convey His image; and the second argues that God’s essence is His existence, which cannot be true of any created image of Him. We receive God’s image by a sort of “divine illumination”.

A3: Since we will be able to see God’s essence, can that essence be seen with our eyes or any other bodily sense? No: the powers of our bodily organs are limited to the apprehension of bodily things; God is not a body, therefore we do not see His essence with our bodily organs. We do not see Him by way of our senses or our imagination; we see Him directly with our minds.

A4: The fourth article generalizes the question asked in the third article by asking whether a created mind can see God’s essence by means of its natural powers. It might seem that this question can be answered very quickly in the same fashion as in the third article. However, bodily organs and minds are to Aquinas quite different types of things. Bodily organs are composites of form and matter and are thus limited in their powers, but the mind is a faculty of the soul which is a form and so is not necessarily limited in the same way. In the objections, Aquinas emphasizes this by introducing the example of angels, whose minds are not limited in the same way that our minds are limited. (Aquinas will have much more to say about angels in Ia.q50-q64.)

Despite these objections, Aquinas’s answer is in the negative: if the way of being of the known is beyond the way of being of the knower, the knower cannot know the known by its natural powers. He argues that for us who exist as composites of matter and form, it is natural to know things through perception and through rational reflection upon those perceptions. For an angel, which is pure form, its knowing is proportioned to what it is; it can know things that are forms that are not instantiated in matter but for which existence and essence are separate. God alone, in whom essence and existence coincide, can know subsistent existence. So it is by the grace of God alone that we know Him.

In the reply to the third objection, Aquinas makes the important point that material senses, like the eye, cannot be raised to the perception of the immaterial; they are restricted to knowing the nature of something only as it is instantiated in a particular concrete individual exemplar of that nature. The mind, on the other hand, transcends the material to some extent and can abstract form from what it knows of individuals. Since it has the natural power to consider form in abstraction, it can be raised by grace beyond what it is naturally so that it can see separate subsisting being and existence. Thus raised by grace, it is the mind that will “see” God’s essence in the beatific vision.

A5: Returning to the divine illumination mentioned in the second article, Aquinas now asks whether we need a created light to see God’s essence. Since when we see something our intellect understands the form of what we see, in order to see God’s essence our intellect needs to be able to assimilate the form of God. Clearly this is beyond the natural human intellect; what is required is a created grace within us strengthening our natural intellect. This created grace is called divine illumination; it allows us to grasp the form of God. The intelligible form that this divine illumination creates within our minds is sometimes referred to in scripture as light or the glory of God.

A6: Will one person be able to see God’s essence better than another? We might think that the beatific vision is uniform for all the blessed who achieve it. However, Aquinas has already suggested (and will make clear in the next article) that although we are able to see God’s essence, we cannot fully comprehend it. This allows for the possibility that different people will have different degrees of comprehension of the divine essence and also suggests that there may be different degrees to the beatific vision itself. Indeed, 1 Cor. 15:41 (“Star differs from star in brightness”) has always been interpreted as referring to these different degrees in the beatific vision. Here Aquinas agrees with this proposition: to some is given a greater share in divine illumination according to their greater degree of charity which predisposes them to receive such a greater share. In the beatific vision they are gifted with a greater intellectual capability to see God.

A7: If we can see God’s essence, does that imply that we can comprehend it? Aquinas quotes St. Augustine to the effect that such comprehension is impossible to the created mind, but to answer the question properly, he has to enquire into the meaning of comprehension. To comprehend something is to understand it as fully as it can be understood. Someone who knows how to prove that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees comprehends that fact whereas someone who knows it on the basis of some authority (a statement in a textbook, for example) knows it but does not comprehend it.

God is unlimited (Ia.q7.a1) and therefore comprehension of Him would involve infinite knowledge, which is beyond the capabilities of a finite created mind. The grace of divine illumination perfects the intellect that receives it but cannot make it to have infinite capability. To give it infinite capability would be change the nature of the human intellect rather than to perfect it. Therefore even though we can see God’s essence we cannot comprehend it.

The first objection brought forth evidence from scripture that appears to claim the possibility of the comprehension of the divine essence. In answer to this objection Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of the word “comprehend”. The first meaning (which is what is used in the body of the answer) is to do with circumscription; the second meaning is to do with laying a hold of or grasping. The English word “apprehension” corresponds to this second meaning; it is this meaning that St Paul is using.

A8: God is omniscient and so, if we can see His essence, does that mean that we can see all that He knows and therefore all that there is and can be? To answer this question, Aquinas notes that we can distinguish between things that exist in God by their very nature from things that exist in God in the same way that effects exist virtually in their causes. (Recall that there must be a resemblance between a cause and its effect; therefore an effect exists in some fashion in its cause). For this latter class of things, which contains all the effects in the world, the only way that we would perfectly comprehend all the effects would be if we perfectly comprehended the causes. But we do not comprehend God and therefore we cannot know all these things that are virtually in God.

The fourth objection is a subtle and important one: if we were not to know everything in knowing God, then our natural desire to know everything would be frustrated. This seems to be a strange state of affairs for our final end in which we obtain perfect happiness. Aquinas’s answer is that what we would know from the beatific vision would be enough to satisfy our natural desire for knowledge.

A9: In the second article Aquinas has already shown that we do not see God’s essence by means of a created image. But is it possible that some of the things we see in God’s essence we see through such a likeness? The argument in favour of this would be to say that although we don’t see God’s essence through such a likeness, our intellect might have to assimilate things seen in God’s essence in the usual way that it assimilates knowledge and abstracts from it. As an example of this, how would our memory of things seen in God’s essence be formed?

Aquinas’s answer is uncompromising: everything that we see associated with the beatific vision is made present to the intellect in the same way that the vision itself is made present to the intellect. Aquinas’s justification for this position is that to know things through likenesses is to know them directly in the normal way through the natural order but that to know them indirectly through their presence in God’s essence is a completely different mode of cognition. To explain this, Aquinas uses the analogy of the difference between knowing something by direct vision as opposed to knowing it via viewing a picture of that thing.

A10: In seeing God’s essence there is an awful lot to see! We are naturally creatures that live in time; thinking of more than one thing at a time is a strain. The eternity of the beatific vision would seem to offer plenty of opportunity to go through all of these things one by one, but the alternative might be that we apprehend everything all at once. Aquinas reassures us that all will be seen simultaneously through the Word of God. The reason we cannot think of more than a few things at once is that we normally think of them through created likenesses; but as we have seen, the beatific vision is not like that. We see all these things through the one thing that is God’s essence.

A11: The beatific vision is our ultimate end after the course of our earthly lives, but might we see God’s essence during our lives? Jacob says that he saw God face to face (Gen. 32:30); God says of Moses that Moses saw Him clearly (Num. 4:8) and yet we are told that “No human shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). St. Augustine observes that in knowing the truth of certain things we are seeing the unchangeable truth that lies in God and that therefore in this respect we see God Himself. Similarly, Augustine says that God is present to us in our souls (He is, after all, providing us with our existence) and thus we see Him in this sense.

Aquinas answers that, in the natural order of things, we do not see God’s essence in this lifetime. Our mode of being in life is through a material body, the cognition of which is ordered to material things or to things abstracted or inferred from them. Although we may be granted divine revelation when in dreams (or otherwise insensible), this is merely an indication that as our soul is abstracted from matter, so it becomes more amenable to such higher things. In the natural order of things, it is only when the soul is separated from the material body at death that its capabilities can be raised to the vision of the divine essence.

On the other hand, in the reply to the second objection, Aquinas does allow that God may suspend the natural order and elevate the mind to a vision of the divine essence in this lifetime. In reply to Augustine, Aquinas claims that our true judgements represent a participation in the divine light, but this illumination falls short of that required to see the divine essence. (Analogously, to see by the light of the Sun, we do not require seeing the Sun itself.) Likewise, God exists in the souls of the blessed in heaven in a different way to how He exist in the souls of the living; this accounts for Augustine’s second opinion.

A12: Having spent the first eleven questions discussing how we can know God through natural reason, it might seem surprising that Aquinas now asks whether we can know God in this life through natural reason! However, the purpose of this article is head off any misapprehensions about the relationship between our natural knowledge of God and our seeing of God in the beatific vision. We can know of God and of certain things about Him though natural reason, arguing from created things back to their first cause; but the beatific vision in which we see God’s essence is of a completely different order.

A13: Finally, as if to hammer home a point complementary to that made in the previous article, Aquinas asks if grace can give us a deeper knowledge of God than can natural reason. Of course it can! Natural reason takes the sense images that we have of things and abstracts our knowledge and understanding of those things from those images. Such natural illumination is only strengthened by the illumination of grace.

The third objection claims that our minds adhere to God by the grace of faith. Since faith is not, strictly speaking, knowledge, it would seem that grace adds nothing to our knowledge of God. Aquinas admits that faith is not knowledge in the strict sense of the term but that it would be unreasonable not to extend the meaning of the term, as faith makes the mind assent to something that is knowable. The difference between knowledge in the sense of demonstration and knowledge in this extended sense is that the former depends upon the seeing of the knowable whereas the latter depends upon the vision of Him who is believed.

Summary & Handy Concepts

  • The created intellect can be raised to the vision of the divine essence by the gift of grace.
  • Angels have minds that are not inhibited by being joined to matter in the way that our minds are.
  • We see God’s essence not through any created image but though a direct divine illumination. Our bodily senses are not involved in this perception; the mind is illuminated directly.
  • The vision of God’s essence is entirely beyond our natural capabilities; the gift of the vision of God is a gift of supernatural grace which elevates the intellect.
  • The gift of the vision of God’s essence is not shared equally between those who receive it; those who have greater charity receive a greater share.
  • Although we are capable, through the gift of grace, to see God’s essence we are unable to comprehend it fully.
  • The vision of God’s essence allows us to see some of the knowledge that is in God; but not all of it. The things that we see in the Word of God we receive by the same divine illumination by which we receive His beatific vision.
  • Those things that we apprehend in the Word of God we apprehend all at once.
  • In the natural course of events we do not see the divine essence whilst we are alive; to be granted such a vision would be a miracle.
  • When we “see” or understand something, our intellect grasps the form of that thing; in some sense the form itself exists within our intellect. Forms that we are able to grasp in this way are called intelligible forms.
  • The Glossa Ordinaria (referred to in the sed contra to the eleventh article) is a medieval gloss on scripture that was essentially the standard biblical commentary of the time.
  • We see Aquinas’s maxim that “grace perfects nature but does not destroy it” illustrated several times in this question.


  • Aquinas opens his answer to the first article with the bald statement that something is intelligible insofar as it is actual. He deduces from this principle that God is supremely intelligible in Himself. Aquinas doesn’t elaborate upon this principle, which is a shame as it seems to lie at the heart of his belief in the intelligibility of being.
  • The first article contains a difficulty that has provided a flash point for the one of the twentieth century’s most enduring and acrimonious theological arguments; the argument over Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel, The particular problem in this article is that Aquinas appears to be attempting to argue philosophically that a created mind can see God’s essence. But in reaching his conclusion, he appears to make a jump from the created mind’s desire to see the essence of the first cause as first cause, to the created mind’s desire to see the essence of the first cause as God-as-known-to-Revelation. Has Aquinas suddenly slipped in a theological argument rather than a philosophical argument? The answer developed by the classical Thomist tradition is that he has not and that Aquinas’s argument is a genuine philosophical argument. This solution suggests that the intellect’s knowledge of God enables the will’s desire to transcend the horizon provided by God’s effects in the world, but this desire will remain conditional and imperfect (both technical terms!) until God provides the Revelation and the grace required to formulate an unconditional and perfect desire that leads us to Him through His grace.
  • Aquinas’s answer to the fourth objection of the eighth article seems strained. He seems to limit our desire for knowledge to knowing the species and genera of all things (i.e. the way in which the world is put together) and to deny us a natural desire for things in the future that have not yet happened! Perhaps he is tacitly implying that after the fall our natural desires are disordered and that in the beatific vision we will not be interested in things to which we are not ordered to know.
  • In the eleventh article Aquinas claims that the soul cannot be raised to the vision of the divine essence in this life in the absence of miraculous intervention. The argument is based on the soul’s mode of knowing being tied to its mode of being; it is limited to knowing through material things whilst joined to matter. Aquinas does not address the situation of the mind’s knowledge after the general resurrection when soul and body are reunited. Presumably one must take the glorified body of the resurrection not to impede the beatific vision.

Revised 08/04/12

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Question 11 - God's Unity

Why this Question Matters.

In Ia.q3 Aquinas demonstrated that God is absolutely simple. In this question he considers a closely related idea, the unity of God. In approaching the question of God’s unity, he has to consider in great depth and profundity the very notions of unity and multiplicity and he concludes that one and being are convertible when considered as transcendentals (as were good and being in Ia.q5). Scripture tells us that there is only one God; reason supports this teaching and goes on to teach us that His oneness expresses the fullness of unity.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: When Aquinas asks whether one adds anything to being, he is asking whether being and one are convertible as transcendentals. That is, are they just different aspects of the same underlying reality? The essence of his argument is that when we say of something that it is one, what we mean is that it is an undivided being. In other words, that it should be considered in its unity as a being rather than as a collection of beings. A composite being made out of parts is a unified being in the singular; if it is divided into its parts it does not have being as a composite thing.

Replying to the first objection, he considers historical approaches to the relationship between unity (considered as applied to things) and the number one. He sides with Plato and Pythagoras (against Avicenna) in claiming that our notion of unity gives rise to the concept of number.

Against the second objection that argues that we do in fact divide beings into the one and the many (for example, we need to be able to differentiate between the being of this collection of ten horses and the being of this one horse) Aquinas answers that this is to confuse the meaning of the word “being”; what we need to focus on is the unity of things-in-themselves, from which we derive the idea of a multiplicity of things. As with the convertibility of good and being in Ia.q5, Aquinas is willing to say that we can conceptually differentiate between the one and being; but it is a purely conceptual, rather than a real, distinction.

A2: The question posed in the second article may seem curious: is one the opposite of many? What this is about is how we come to our notions of unity and multiplicity. For example, we speak quite freely of “a flock of sheep” treating it as a unity, but also considering it as a multiplicity composed of individual sheep. And which comes first, unity or multiplicity? When we consider our understanding of these things, do we derive one concept from the other, and which way around is the derivation?

Aquinas suggests in the sed contra that unity is associated with indivisibility; something is a unity if it makes no sense to consider it divided up whereas multitudes are inherently divisible. In his answer, Aquinas makes a distinction: the one and the many are opposites but in different ways depending on how they are considered. If one is considered the basis of number then many is a derived concept from one; if one is taken as convertible with being then they differ in the way proposed in the sed contra.

In the reply to the first objection, which pointed out the unity inherent in multiplicities, Aquinas gives an extended discussion of the convertibility of one and being along similar lines to that given for the convertibility of good and being in Ia.q5.a1.ad1. In that discussion Aquinas showed how a privation of the good can be thought of in terms of a privation of being; and conversely that unqualified good corresponds to the fullness of being. Here Aquinas argues in the same way: a lack of unity corresponds in some way to a lack of the fullness of being; the complete actualization of potentiality in something would correspond to it being truly a unified thing-in-itself. However, just as the privation of a good has to be grounded in some actual good, the absence of unity has to be grounded in something that exists. Therefore Aquinas can conclude that just as a bad thing is actually some sort of good (in that it exists), “so the many turn out to be somehow one”.

In the reply to the second objection in which it was argued that a whole is made up of parts, Aquinas distinguishes between homogeneous and heterogeneous wholes. In the former all the parts of the whole have the same form as the whole; in the latter the parts differ from the whole. A body of water can be considered as composed as many sub-bodies of water; but a house is not made up of sub-houses. Even for heterogeneous wholes, we must recognize their existence as unities.

In the reply to the fourth objection Aquinas gives a careful description of how we arrive at the concepts of unity and multiplicity. We tend to come to an understanding of simple things through an analysis of complex things and therefore we might think that the idea of multiplicity is prior to that of unity. But this neglects to take into account that the division of something complex into things that are simple presupposes the unity of the bits into which we are dividing the complex. Our first apprehension is of things that exist; we then discern that this thing is not that thing and thereby arrive at the idea of division, which gives us the idea of multiplicity.

A3: Now Aquinas can turn to the oneness of God, for which he offers three proofs that reinforce the scriptural teaching of Deuteronomy that “The Lord our God is one God”.

The first proof observes that what makes something a singular thing cannot be shared with other things. So Socrates is an individual human being and no other human being is Socrates; there can be other human beings because they can share in the nature of humanity but what individuates Socrates belongs to Socrates alone. God is His own nature, so what individuates God is being-God; to be God is to be this God. There can be no other Gods because this would imply that there would have to be other God-natures.

The second proof observes that if there were more than one God, then they would have to differ from each other in some way. Therefore at least one of them would have to lack something that the other possessed. But God is that which is the fullness of being, lacking any privation. Therefore the hypothesis of a multiplicity of Gods leads to a contradiction.

Finally, when we consider the unity of the world, we find that there is a single ordering of things in the world. Such a unity of ordering must be due to there being a single cause of that order, since a multiplicity of causes would produce a unity of ordering only by accident. Since it is God that provides the ordering of the world, we must conclude that God is one.

A4: Is the unity of God the most unified unity there can be? Having done the hard work in previous articles, proving the affirmative here is straightforward. God is pure actuality and since being and unity are convertible, His unique fullness of being corresponds to a unique fullness of unity. He is also supremely indivisible, as He is completely simple.

Summary & Handy Concepts

  • One and being are convertible as transcendentals.
  • The idea of the number one is derived from the unity of beings-in-themselves.
  • Unity and multiplicity go hand-in-hand with indivisibility and divisibility.
  • The one and the many are opposites but in different ways depending on how they are considered.
  • Our apprehension of multiplicity is founded upon our apprehension of being and thence of unity.
  • The scriptural teaching of the oneness of God is confirmed by reason; what God is by His nature implies that He must be one.
  • The fullness of the being of God and His simplicity imply that He is supremely one.


  • The convertibility of being and one points to the reality of the being of things in the world. We must not think of the world as an indivisible monad (though we may consider it in its unity); it is not simply our mind that organizes the world into things.
  • The meditation on the convertibility of being and one in 1 and the similarities of these transcendentals with the good is profound. Here we get a glimpse of the profound mysticism at the heart of St. Thomas’s theology.

Revised 06/04/12

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Question 10 - God's Eternity

Why this Question Matters.

It is an article of the Christian faith that God is eternal; but what does this mean? If we think that it just means that God has been from the beginning of time and will be to the end of time, we run into the problem that this seems to put God inside of time and dependent in some way upon it. To maintain this position will eventually conclude with a fall into the error of dualism; that the God that we know and love is but a secondary God created by a higher God. Therefore it is important for Aquinas to enquire at this point into what eternity means and what it means for God to be eternal. He also introduces the idea of aeviternity, the measure of change in immaterial creatures.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: If we are going to talk about God’s eternity, we will have to understand what we mean by eternity. If we are going to understand what eternity is, we will have to approach it from our understanding of time. Aquinas argues that time is defined by reference to change; it is the “numbering of before and after in change”. The old joke puts it well: “Time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening at once”.

In contrast, the notion of eternity is derived from things in which there is never any change or any possibility of change. Aquinas is careful not to locate eternity as being somewhere, leaving the definition open to further elaboration. He is willing to connect eternity with time by saying that anything existing in eternity has no beginning or end and that eternity itself exists as an instantaneous whole, recalling Boethius’s definition that “eternity is the complete and instantaneously whole perfect possession of interminable life”.

A2: Aquinas turns to the question of whether God is eternal. The two major objections state that even if God is “in” eternity, this seems to measure or contain him; and secondly, scripture uses present, past and future tenses when talking about God. Against these objections we have the creedal teaching about God’s eternity.

In a very compact reply, Aquinas points out that God’s eternity follows straight away from the fact that He is utterly unchangeable. In fact he puts the matter more strongly claiming both that “God is his own eternity” and that “eternity and God are the same thing”. We might recall here that when we consider God’s omnipresence (Ia.q8.a2) we shouldn’t think of God as being contained within all places, but rather of God being present to all places as the efficient cause of their existence and of the cause of them having the power to be places. Similarly, when we think about eternity, we shouldn’t think of God as being “in” eternity as if eternity was something external to God that contained Him; eternity is what God is by His immutability.

The first major objection clearly falls. The answer to the second objection recognizes that we have to think about the relationship between time and eternity. When we use temporal language about God, we are recognising that, in some sense, God’s eternity contains all that is in time. We must also recall that language can be used informally, as when we talk about an unbounded extent of time as being an eternity.

A3: Having claimed that “eternity and God are the same thing”, it is not surprising that Aquinas will now claim that eternity belongs properly only to God. This follows from the conclusion of Ia.q9.a2 where Aquinas has shown that only God is truly unchangeable. Created things may receive a share of God’s eternity but it is only a share; their eternity is derivative from God’s eternity. For example, the blessed in heaven having attained their ultimate end are unchangeable; they now participate in God’s eternity.

We do observe that that scripture sometimes refers to things other than God being eternal; but this should be thought of in the light of this idea of the sharing in eternity or by noticing that the word “eternal” is amenable to informal usage. The objection that necessary truths are eternal is answered by observing that that this is because such truths exist in God’s mind, obtaining their eternity by sharing in His eternity.

A4: How are time and eternity related? The first step in understanding this relationship is to show that time and eternity are essentially different things; one cannot simply identify time as a subset of eternity, as the first objection does, since they are not measures of the same type of thing.

Aquinas observes that the fundamental difference between time and eternity is that time measures change and eternity measures permanent unchangeable existence. One must follow Boethius in recognising that eternity exists as an instantaneous whole. There is no flow of time in eternity; there is no “now” other than the entirety of eternity. Time, on the other hand, flows; this flow of time consists in the changing “now” that refers to the changing or changeable things that time measures. One might wish, as in the second objection, to think of “now” as being eternity; after all, “now” has a permanent existence even though it refers to different points of time, as time flows by. But it is this changing reference that “now” always has that disqualifies it from being eternity.

A5: If time is derived from changeable material creatures and eternity from the immutability of God, aeviternity is derived from the change that immaterial creatures may undergo; a kind of half-way-house between time and eternity. In this article Aquinas asks whether aeviternity differs from time. This is non-trivial since there appears to be a dichotomy: before and after exist (time); or they do not (eternity). Where does aeviternity fit?

Aquinas spends much of the reply demolishing competing ideas of aeviternity before turning to his own. His opinion is that aeviternity is associated with immaterial creatures that undergo no substantial change but which are accompanied in some sense with some accidental changes; “the further a thing falls short of abiding existence, the further it falls short of eternity”. One of the examples that Aquinas gives is the angels; he will show later on in the summa that they combine an unchangeable substance with changeable thoughts, affections and places (in a sense). So, for Aquinas, aeviternity is neither time nor eternity but somewhere in-between. Aeviternity should be thought of as being instantaneously whole, but able to co-exist with before and after.

A6: Since both time and eternity are unique, Aquinas asks whether the same is true of aeviternity. The objections suggest that the different types of things measured by aeviternity are so different they must have their own aeviternities.

Aquinas approaches the question by considering how we arrive at the conclusion that there is only one time, then extending the argument by analogy to aeviternity. Borrowing an argument from Aristotle, Aquinas claims that the motions in the world form a hierarchy. Motions lower down the hierarchy are measured in terms of motions of things higher up the hierarchy. Time measures “the most fundamental motion” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore time is a unity because all other motions are measured in terms of it.

Turning to aeviternity, Aquinas recognizes two opinions concerning immaterial things. The first opinion, which derives from Origen, suggests that all immaterial things were created equal. Aquinas argues that if that is the case, then this implies that each immaterial thing has its own aeviternity. Pseudo-Dionysius, on the other hand, claimed a hierarchy in immaterial things and that therefore lower members of the hierarchy are measured by the measure of the primary immaterial thing at the top of the hierarchy. Thus, making the analogy to time, there is only one aeviternity. Aquinas says that he will show that Pseudo-Dionysius’ position is the more likely (in Iaq.47.a2 & Ia.q50.a4); therefore Aquinas claims that it is more likely that there is only one aeviternity.

Summary & Handy Concepts

  • Time is defined in relation to the succession of events in things that change.
  • Eternity is defined in relation to things that do not change.
  • God, since He is completely immutable, is eternal. In fact God is eternity.
  • Eternity belongs properly only to God. However some things other than God can participate or share in God’s eternity in various ways. For example, necessary truths are eternal, existing in God’s mind.
  • Time and eternity are really distinct as they are measures of different types of thing. Although we speak informally of unbounded lengths of time as being eternal, a more formal use rejects the idea of embedding time within eternity.
  • Aeviternity is defined in terms of the changes that immaterial creatures can undergo. There is no before and after in aeviternity; it is instantaneous in a way similar to eternity. However the notions of before and after can coexist with it.
  • The aeviternity of a being can be thought of as a participation in the eternity of God; the participation being stronger the closer the being is to God.
  • Following Pseudo-Dionysius’s teaching on the hierarchy of immaterial creatures, we can infer that there is only one aeviternity as opposed to an aeviternity corresponding to each type of immaterial creature.


  • Aquinas doesn’t say much at this stage about how time and eternity are related, other than to say that they are different. In the same way that it is very easy to misunderstand how God is present spatially, it is easy to be mistaken about how God affects created things in time.
  • Though aeviternity is instantaneously whole, it differs from eternity in being able to co-exist with before and after. ( 3). It is unclear how this works or how we might picture what this means. As with the relationship between time and eternity, Aquinas leaves many questions about the relationship between time and aeviternity unanswered.
  • If we are to consider eternity as existing as an instantaneous whole, how are we to understand instantaneous? The very notion of the instantaneous derives from our perception and understanding of time.
  • Although aeviternity is defined in terms of immaterial creatures and therefore applies to the souls of the blessed in heaven before the general resurrection, one might argue that it also applies after the general resurrection as well and therefore to some material creatures. The notion of the glorified body may be identified with a radical enhancement of the spirituality of the body, but it still remains material in some way.

Revised 06/04/12

Question 9 - God's Immutability

Why this Question Matters.

In the introduction to this question, Aquinas points out that God’s immutability (that is, the fact that he undergoes no change) is intimately connected with His eternity. He will go on to give a thorough account of God’s eternity, and of aeviternity and time, in the next question. Before he can do that, he needs to show that there is no change in God; a fact that follows almost immediately from God being pure actuality. Although this proof is very straightforward and the question is consequently quite short, this is an important topic in itself as it shows that we have to remove God in our thinking from the realm of time.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In the objections, Aquinas recalls that scripture sometimes appears to talk in terms of God changing in some way. However, the famous passage from Malachi 3:6 quoted in the sed contra states that “I am God, and I do not change”. It’s very easy to explain away the latter passage, for example in terms of God’s steadfastness; but to do this is to miss the direct witness to a profound fact about God that follows from His nature. In fact, as Aquinas does in the replies to the objections, we should understand the passages that appear to talk of God changing in terms of metaphor.

In fact, the implication of God’s immutability follows almost immediately from what Aquinas has already shown. One starts with the facts that God is pure actuality and that anything undergoing change must be moving from potentiality to actuality. Therefore anything undergoing change cannot be pure actuality; therefore God cannot undergo change.

Aquinas does not stop with only the one argument; he gives us another two. A thing, that is identifiable in some way as a thing, undergoing change only changes in respect of certain properties; but in order to retain its identity it must remain the same with respect to other properties. Therefore such a thing must be a composite. We know that God is not a composite in any way whatsoever (Ia.q3), therefore God cannot undergo change. Finally anything changing acquires something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new. Therefore God cannot change.

A2: Aquinas then asks whether God is the only thing that is immutable in such a radical sense. One might think that those things that are like God in some way (e.g. souls and angels) might be unchangeable, or perhaps the blessed in heaven who have achieved their final end (after all, where would they go next?) might be unchangeable. Perhaps we should think of forms in terms of being immutable.

Aquinas shows that only God is unchangeable. At the very least we must remember that all members of creation are changeable in the sense that their continued existence depends upon God keeping them in existence. If God were to withdraw his support from a thing, that thing would go out of existence immediately. Therefore all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence.

However, in case one might think that coming into and going out of existence should be not be considered as change, Aquinas gives an enumeration of the other ways in which created things invariably undergo change. Material things can undergo substantial change when they are turned from one thing into another. They can undergo accidental change when they change their qualities. It is true that accidents that follow upon the substantial form of a thing cannot change (it is of the nature of snow to be white, for example) but this does not subtract from the general argument. In the cosmology of the day it was considered that celestial bodies could not undergo substantial change; but even they change their position. Creatures such as angels cannot change or vary in their being (other than if God stopped holding them in existence) but, as we will see in the Treatise on the Angels, they can change their place and can change their will towards or away from God (but only once). Forms vary in the way that they exist as being the form of this or of that individual being.

Summary and Handy Concepts

  • God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; He is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which He could change.
  • All created things are susceptible to change; therefore God alone is immutable.


  • It’s very easy to get completely the wrong end of the stick about God’s immutability. One might argue, as many have attempted, that if God were immutable then He must be static and impersonal; that He could not be the God that we love. But to do this is to attempt to make God in our image; He must be like us so that we can love Him. But this approach fails to see that God’s immutability follows on from His perfection and is intimately connected with Him being in eternity. God’s perfection means that every possibility, realized or not, is within God; far from being static, He provides the very being of all that is dynamic in the created world. We will see more of this as Aquinas discusses God’s knowledge and His providence later in the summa.

Revised 01/04/12

Question 8 - God's Existence in Things

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has just shown, in Ia.q7, that God is limitless. As it “belongs to limitless things to exist everywhere in everything”, he now asks about God’s existence in things. The question culminates in showing that, in a certain sense, God is unique in existing in everything. This is an important element of Aquinas’s picture of the world where God is self subsistent existence, supplying being to all created things. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas shows that God is in everything; not as part of the essence of a thing nor as an accident but as an efficient cause of the being of the thing. We must recall especially the second of the five ways from Ia.q2.a3 and also that, following Aristotle, a cause must be in contact with its effects (as in modern physics, Aquinas will not allow for any notion of action at a distance). Since God is both the efficient cause of the being of things as well as the first cause of any motion in them we see that God must be intimately present in things.

A2: Having just shown that God is present in all things, Aquinas now generalizes this in asking about the sense in which we can say that God is everywhere. The thrust of the objections to this assertion is that it makes no sense to say that something like God can be in a place; or if it does, He cannot be in more than one place at a time.

Aquinas addresses these objections by acknowledging that we have to be careful about what we mean when we talk about God being in a place. We are quite correct in identifying that bodies fill places, and while they do, they exclude other bodies from those places. But when we come to consider what it means for God to be in a place we must recognize that His presence in that place is of a different order altogether. After all, we’ve seen in the previous article that He is present in things as the efficient cause of their being, So God being in a place does not exclude bodies from being there too; rather His presence makes them what they are. In fact we must recognize that God is in every place giving the place itself its existence and the power to be a place. God is in that place in a way that is analogical to the way in which bodies are in places. In fact, a closer analogy is in the way the soul exists everywhere in the human body.

The reply to the second objection makes a point that is vital to the way we understand how immaterial things relate to the material universe: indivisible things like God, the soul and angels are in causal contact with the continua that are space and time, but are not present in it by being part of it. It is entirely wrong to think of God as some sort of ghostly substance filling the universe.

A3: Aquinas has shown how God exists in things as efficient cause, but he now goes further in specifying how God is present to things: He is present everywhere by his essence, presence and power. Aquinas explains what this means by analogy with human affairs: a king exercises power throughout his realm, even though he is not present everywhere; all the things in my house are present to me, because they are within easy reach of my view, even though I am not everywhere in my house; something is essentially present where its substance is located.

So, although some have denied various aspects of this triple presence, we can say that God is present everywhere by His power (because everything is subject to this power), He is present everywhere (because everything is within His gaze) and He is essentially present everywhere (because He exists in everything as the efficient cause of each thing).

It’s important to notice that that there is another way in which God may be present to rational creatures: He is present in those rational creatures that love Him by grace. This is a topic that Aquinas will spend much time on later in the summa. Also, as a very special case of presence, we must recall the hypostatic union in Christ; again, a topic that Aquinas will discuss at the start of the third part of the summa.

A4: Aquinas finally claims that only God is omnipresent. The objections suggest other things that might be considered omnipresent. For example, numbers, universals and prime matter can be considered to exist everywhere. If we think about the whole world as a sort of unity then we might claim that it is everywhere present in itself.

Aquinas replies that there are senses in which one could rightly claim that other types of thing than God have a presence everywhere. However, God is unique in being everywhere primarily and essentially. The former term means that all of God exists everywhere, not just different parts of him in different places; the latter term means that He exists everywhere in all circumstances. So the examples given in the objections can be thought of as existing everywhere but they do not exist everywhere primarily and essentially; it is these that give uniqueness to God’s omnipresence.

Handy Concepts

  • God, as the efficient cause of the being of everything must be intimately present to all things.
  • Aquinas, following Aristotle, considers that causes must be in contact with their effects. This idea continues in modern science with the denial of any action at a distance; all of the fundamental forces are mediated by fields that are present throughout the domain of their effects.
  • God is omnipresent; He not only creates the being of material things, He also creates the being of the places where things are located.
  • Indivisible things like God, the soul and angels are in causal contact with space and time, but are not present in it by being part of it.
  • In the answer to the third objection to the second article, Aquinas makes the point that form and matter are parts of something composite, but they are parts in a different sense from the way that an extended body has different parts. It is wrong to think of form and matter as two substances that come together to make a new substance. Rather, form and matter are two principles that together make the substance what it is.
  • God is omnipresent in His essence, presence and power.
  • Although we may think of senses in which other things are omnipresent, only God is omnipresent primarily and essentially.


  • In the fourth article Aquinas claims that God is unique in existing everywhere primarily and essentially. However, he makes no attempt to prove this; that God is unique in this way is a bald assertion. One might attempt a proof by enumerating the possibilities (as the objections start to do), but important examples are passed over in silence. Proving that an angel, or even a separated soul, is not primarily and essentially omnipresent would appear to take some more work.

Revised 31/03/12

Question 7 - The Infinity of God

Why this Question Matters.

God is self-subsistent being and is the efficient cause of the being of all created things. It is time for Aquinas to start reeling off the consequences of these facts. This question and the next discuss God’s limitlessness and his omnipresence. These are two facts about God that, by their nature, go together. This question continues the process of purging our minds of false and simplistic ideas about God that see Him only as being rather like us but more powerful and not subject to our weaknesses. We might recall the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD) that "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude."

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas asks whether God is infinite; a word he uses in the sense of “without limit”. As we will see in the third and fourth articles, Aquinas did not like the idea of an actual infinity when considering material things; therefore he starts from the position of considering the infinite in God negatively.

Indeed, Aquinas spends most of the answer of this article talking about material things, which are composites of matter and form. He argues that in such a composition, each of the principles limits the other: form limits matter by determining it to be this type of thing; matter limits form to be the form of this thing. So, for example, the form of a horse limits this matter to be a horse rather than, say, a table; matter limits the form to be the form of this particular horse, rather than of any other horse.

Forms that are not informing matter are therefore, in this sense, unlimited. If we generalize from material forms to the highest form of all, that of being, then we see that God must be without limit as He is self-subsistent being. In God, the form of being is not in-forming anything and is therefore not limited.

A2: Given the way that Aquinas approaches the limitlessness of God in the first article, we might suspect that God’s limitlessness is unique in some important sense. God as self-subsistent being is not limited in any way; it is of God’s very essence to be unlimited. But before we can attribute such essential limitlessness uniquely to God, we must enquire into the possible limitlessness of other things.

If we think about an existing material thing composed of matter and form, we can see that in some sense we can attribute limitlessness to it. For although the substantial form of the thing limits it to be the sort of thing that it is, it can the subject of an unlimited number of accidental forms. So, for example, a lump of wood is in potency to receive any number of accidental forms of shape; the woodcarver’s profession depends upon this.

So, seen from the point of view of matter, things are limited in certain respects but unlimited in others. If we look from the point of view of form, however, we see that material things are completely limited to be what they are; the form is limited to be the form of this thing. What about forms that do not inform matter? Angels are purely spiritual beings and their substantial forms do not inform matter. So, in a sense, the substantial form of an angel is unlimited. However, we have to recognize that even such subsistent forms are not identical with their existence; their existence is limited by the nature that they have.

The conclusion of these arguments is that anything other than God can be unlimited in certain respects but has to be limited in others. Therefore it is only God that is limitless by essence.

A3: This article and the next consider aspects of the possible limitlessness of created things. The next article will consider the possibility of their being an unlimited number of things; here we look at the possible unlimited size of things.

Aquinas argues that a material body considered as a natural object (rather than through some sort of mathematical abstraction) has a determinate substantial form. Following on from a substantial form are a group of accidental forms that such a body has to have; one of these is the size of the body which has a determinate value that has to lie in a range of particular values between a maximum and a minimum. Therefore a natural body cannot be unlimited in size. In support of this, Aquinas points out the problems associated with the possibility of rectilinear or rotational motion for an unlimited body.

Aquinas claims that similar reasoning applies to mathematical bodies; if we imagine such a thing in actual existence, then it too will have a determinate shape that lies within finite boundaries.

A4: Think of a number, N. One can always think of a larger number N+1; therefore the numbers are unlimited. Similarly if one has a collection of N things, then one can always add another to the collection to obtain N+1 things. Therefore it seems that there is no limit to the number of things.

Aquinas makes a distinction between what is called an intrinsically unlimited number of things and a number of things that happens to be unlimited. The former refers to a situation where something needs the existence of an unlimited number of other things in order to exist itself; the latter to there just happening to be an unlimited number of things with no thing depending on this unlimited collection. Aquinas refers to those who are of the opinion that the former is impossible whereas the latter is possible. The problem with the intrinsically unlimited is that in order for the dependent thing to exist an infinite number of other things would have had to have happened prior to its coming to be. Aquinas claims that to traverse this infinite number of actions is impossible. (This is rather like the argument that time cannot have existed forever: for if so, an infinite amount of time would have to have been traversed to get to now.)

Aquinas makes the stronger claim that there cannot even be a number of things that happen to be unlimited. He argues that any collection of things must be subject to a definite enumeration. Since all actual numbers are finite, there cannot be an infinite number of things in a collection. He is willing to allow for the fact that a collection can be potentially infinite in the sense that whatever actual number is in the collection, more can be added to it. The addition of a finite number to a finite number will always remain finite.

Summary and Handy Concepts

  • Form limits matter in the sense of removing its potential to be many things by making it a specific type of thing. Similarly, matter limits form as the form becomes the form of some specific thing.
  • God is unlimited, or infinite, because His form of self-subsistent being is subject to no limitations at all.
  • Created things can be unlimited in certain respects, but cannot be unlimited by essence in the way that God is.
  • In the reply to the first objection to the second article, Aquinas states that although God’s power is unlimited, it is only unlimited in respect to things that are logically possible.
  • In the material world, bodies are finite in extent.
  • Aquinas is willing to consider conceptually the notion of infinity but he rules out the notion of a completed infinity existing in nature. He distinguishes between the unlimited or potentially infinite (think of the integers: for any integer there is a larger one) and the actually infinite (any actual integer is a finite integer).


  • In the first article Aquinas says that “that which is the most formal of all things is esse itself” and “the notion of form is most fully realised in existence itself”. Aquinas’s idea here is that the most fundamental thing that there is, is existence itself. Reference to Ia.q3.a4 and Ia.q4.a3 ad 1 may help clarify these phrases.
  • In the third article Aquinas argues that material bodies are finite in size, supporting his argument by reference to the problems that the motion of an infinite body would present. Modern physicists would be sympathetic to such arguments, but might approach the problems from the point of view of inertia and energy. More problematic, though, is Aquinas’s assertion about “mathematical bodies”. He doesn’t make clear here what he means by such things, but appears to demand that such a thing is, at least in theory, realizable as a physical body. If one thinks about mathematical abstractions from bodies, then the postulation and manipulation of actually infinite things is everyday fare in modern mathematics.
  • Similarly, in the fourth article, although Aquinas has a notion of the potentially unlimited, he is unwilling to countenance the possibility of an actually infinite collection of things. His argument is simply that any collection must have an enumeration and that all actual numbers are finite. In the light of modern mathematical ideas (see our document on Infinity) this argument doesn’t really work. Indeed, we might even argue that the infinite could apply, in principle, to physical things in the following way. One can advance the idea that there might be an infinite regress where bodies are made of atoms that are made of nuclear particles that are made of quarks that are made of more fundamental particles and so on. This may be false as a matter of contingent fact, but it is not clear that it is false in principle.

Revised 31/03/12

Question 6 - God's Goodness

Why this Question Matters.

In Ia.q5, St Thomas explored the idea of the good in general. He showed that the good and being are the same in reality but that we can conceptually distinguish between the two. The word “good” especially expresses the idea of being desirable or of being that which all things seek; a meaning that the word “being” does not directly express. We’ve already seen that God is self-subsistent being; therefore it makes sense now to ask how we are to think of the good as applying to God.

If we recall Aristotle’s maxim from the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics that “the good is what everything desires”, we realize the importance of this question. If God were not good in some appropriate sense, then our relationship with Him would be very different. For example, that relationship might be founded on fear rather than love.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The foundational question asked in this article is whether it makes sense to associate goodness with God. That we can and must make such an association is based on the observation that all created things seek their perfection. In moving towards their perfection, things are moving towards a likeness of the efficient cause of that perfection. Therefore the efficient cause of that perfection must be thought of as good. God is the first efficient cause of every created thing; therefore goodness must be ascribed to Him.

The second objection to this article points out that not everything desires God for the simple reason that not everything knows Him and therefore not everything can seek Him. The answer to this objection lies in the observation that was made in Ia.q5; the sense in which the word “desire” is used here is that of “seeking” or of “being ordered towards”. This generality allows for the fact that rational creatures may have cognitive knowledge of what they are seeking but that inanimate objects simply have an innate ordering towards some end. The inanimate object may not know God, but that does not prevent from being ordered towards Him.

A2: God is not only good; He is the greatest good. The objections demonstrate that one has to be careful with the meaning of this in the light of what Aquinas has already demonstrated about God. To say that He is the greatest good would appear to be adding something to Him as simply good; this would mean that He is composite, which we already know cannot be the case. Similarly, to call something “greatest” appears to be making a comparison and we can only make comparisons within a genus; but God is not in a genus.

Aquinas argues that God is the greatest good in the sense of being the source of all the perfections towards which things are ordered. God is not in a genus so, as we have seen in Ia.q.a3, He is the eminent cause of such perfections rather than the formal cause. This approach to the idea of “greatest” deals with the objection based on comparison within a genus, as it is not founded on such comparisons. Similarly this notion of “greatest” does not add some absolute thing to God but merely defines a relation from creatures to God; their goodness is less than the goodness of God. In answering this objection, Aquinas makes the important point (one that he will return to many times) that creatures can have real relations to God but there are no real relations in God to creatures. Such relations to God can only have a conceptual existence.

A3: A thing is good insofar as it is perfect; that is, we may assess the goodness of a thing according to how far it is along the path from its potentiality to its actuality. Therefore, as Aquinas argues, we may identify a threefold perfection in things: the very fact of existence; the accidents possessed necessary to perfect actuality; and the attainment of an extrinsically given goal. This threefold perfection is only essentially possessed by God: only in Him is essence and existence identical; only in Him can there be no accidents perfective of His being; only for Him is there no external goal. Therefore to be good is of the essence of God; and only God is essentially good.

A4: In establishing that God is the source of the being and of goodness of things, one might fall in to the temptation of believing that being and goodness belong only to God. This is a mistake: each individual thing has its own act of existence and it has its own goodness insofar as it exists. God’s being and His goodness are the sources of the being and goodness of creatures; but it is their being and goodness.

In arguing for this position, Aquinas discusses how we may describe things. Relative terms like “by the tree” and “three centimetres long” are defined relative to some other things; in this case, a tree and a ruler. When we consider absolute terms like “horse” or “good” we recognize the differing opinions of Plato and of Aristotle. Plato considered the forms of things to exist in some third realm of being and that instances of such things participate in these forms. So we call a thing a horse if it participates in the form of a horse; we call something good if it participates in the form of good. Aristotle denied that the forms exist in their own realm but claimed that they exist only as exemplified in things. Even with Aristotle’s caveat, it remains true that there is some first thing that is good by its essence and that we can call things good by reference to this first thing. Inasmuch as it participates in the goodness of God we can rightly say that a thing is good by God’s goodness; but we must remember that the goodness is inherent in the thing itself.

Handy Concepts

  • Goodness is most properly associated with God because He is the efficient cause of the being and perfection of things.
  • Because He is precisely the source of all the perfections towards which all things are ordered, it is right to consider Him as the greatest good.
  • We must also think of God as the only essentially good thing; but the goodness of individual things inheres within them. God is not the only good.
  • “The good is that which all things desire” is a definition that comes straight from the opening of Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
  • In the second article, a univocal cause refers to a cause in the same genus as its effects; an equivocal cause is one that is not in the same genus as its effects.


  • When we say that “God is good”, we must be careful not to bring God down to the level of created beings and to consider this as a statement about God as a moral agent. If we understand the term “good” as an attributive adjective then we are led to the conclusion that God is lacking no perfection; He is pure act. We may even take it, in a certain sense, as an identity.

Revised 21/03/12

Monday, 5 April 2010

Getting Started

Welcome to the blog of the York Aquinas Reading Group! We meet every third Friday of the month (7.15 for 7.30pm) at St. Wilfrid's Church, Duncombe Place, York, UK (in the shadow of York Minster). If you are in the area, you are welcome to come along. If you’re not, but you’d like to follow us in reading through the summa theologiae, you are more than welcome to use the materials on this site and you can pose any questions you may have or observations that you wish to share by using the responses to individual questions.

In order to understand the arguments that Aquinas uses in the summa, it’s important to try to read him as he was rather than to try to impose upon him categories of thought that arose in later ages. To a certain extent you may have to unlearn a few things that you might currently take for granted! To help you with this, we’ve made a few suggestions about background reading and you can find these from the links below. At the very least you might read the “Introduction to Metaphysics” that will help get you through the first twenty or so questions. Beyond that, the introductory books on Aquinas that we suggest are all good reads!

The form with which the summa is set out may appear foreign to modern eyes, so here’s a short explanation. First of all, the work is divided into three books, I, II-I, II-II and III, which you’ll sometimes see in Latin form as Ia, Ia-IIae, IIa-IIae & IIIa. (There is also a “supplement” compiled, mostly from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, after his death by his confrères. The summa itself was unfinished at his death).

The books are divided into “Questions” each of which covers a general topic. Furthermore, each question is divided into a number of “Articles” each of which addresses a specific topic. Each article follows a stylized form corresponding to the medieval “disputatio” which was one of the major teaching mechanisms in medieval universities. In such a disputatio:

  • The master would set a question for consideration with an implied yes/no answer.
  • The students would be expected to come up with the strongest arguments against the hypothesised answer. These objections would be introduced by the formula “videtur quod…” (“it would seem that…”).
  • A counter argument, supporting the original proposition would be given, often from scripture or a leading Church Father. This argument would be introduced by the formula “sed contra…” (“but against this…”)
  • The master would give his analysis of the problem, coming down on one side or the other or, not infrequently, would indicate that the original question required greater precision by making distinctions of meaning. The master’s response would be introduced by the formula “respondeo dicendum…” (I reply, saying…”)
  • Finally the original counter arguments would be refuted, introduced by formulae such as “Ad primum ergo dicendum quod” (“Therefore to the first saying…”)

It’s important to note that the opinions of the master are contained in the reply and the answers to the objections. All the other parts are arguments for and against the proposition under consideration that may have arisen from anywhere. One is struck by the intellectual honesty involved in medieval philosophy and theology; the master is obliged to justify his answers in the light of the strongest possible objections.

Individual elements within the summa are referred to by an extension of the notation for the individual books: so, for example, Ia Q10 a1 (or I.10.1) refers to the first article of the tenth question of book one (and sometimes more specifically to the master’s respondeo); Ia Q10 a1 ad 2 (or I.10.1 ad 2) refers to the reply to the second objection to the same question.

Another thing worth noting is that although Aquinas describes the summa as being appropriate for the “instruction of beginners”, these beginners in theology would have had many years of university level bible study and philosophy!

We are very grateful to the English Dominican Province for the assistance that they are giving us with this project. We must emphasize that any mistakes, misapprehensions or just plain complete failures-to-get-it are entirely our fault. Please let us know about the best of the howlers...

n.b. For the moment we’re using comment moderation on this blog, so if you submit a comment, it may be a little while until it appears.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Relaxing Thomas Aquinas Lecture

Here's a link to a lecture by Brian Davies in which he talks about the 'new' atheism, and gives an excellent insight into how St Thomas gives us the tools to think clearly about these issues.