Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Question 47 - The Diversity Amongst Creatures

Why this Question Matters.

God is a simple unity and it therefore seemed reasonable to philosophers and theologians that such unity would be reflected in what He created. However, one must ask about the extent of such unity; after all, there simply is diversity and inequality in the world. Have these come about directly caused by God’s intention or have they come about indirectly? Aquinas argues that there is unity in the world, to the extent that we can say that there is one world, but that it would be a mistake to say that the world is one, in the sense of lacking diversity or inequality.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas asks whether God is the source of multiplicity of things. This may seem a rather odd question, but it is motivated by opposition to the Gnostic and Neo-Platonist belief in the essential oneness of things. (Indeed this latter belief lives on today in some New Age and Neo-Gnostic sects and can arguably be seen to lie behind occult beliefs such as astrology.) After going though a number of faulty arguments about diversity and its origins, Aquinas argues that diversity comes about by the intention of God to communicate His goodness to creatures and to represent His goodness though them. As any one creature is finite and therefore cannot provide an adequate representation of God’s goodness, God produces diverse creatures so that the inadequacy of the representation of any one may be made up by others.

In response to the objection that agents tend to produce just one effect (and therefore God acting as efficient cause would produce a unity of effect), Aquinas argues that a voluntary agent like God acts though a form conceived in the intellect (Ia.q19.a4); God’s simplicity is not in contradiction to that form being of diverse things (Ia.q15.a2) and so it is quite reasonable to consider God as the cause of diversity in creatures.

A2: A consideration of God’s justice might lead one to think (as it apparently did Origen) that God would have created all things equally and that therefore any inequality that exists in the world would have to be explained by something other than God’s actions. However, Aquinas points out that this reasoning is faulty: justice presupposes the differences in merit that lead to the differences in reward; but anterior to creation there are no differences in merit that might lead to differences in reward. There is nothing upon which justice can be founded in the act of creation. Rather, inequality exists in creation for the benefit of the whole and must be attributed to God’s wisdom in the same way as diversity is accounted to God.

A3: There seems no particular reason to suppose that God’s creative activity is limited to the creation of just one world. Aquinas however sees the ordering of all things in creation as an argument that the world is indeed one. Things in creation have an ordering both to one another and to God as their creator and this ordering is a sort of “glue” that provides unity. Indeed, one might argue that the world is all that God has created and so is by definition a unity.

Handy Concepts

  • God is the source both of the diversity of things and of their inequality.
  • God has created diversity and inequality in order to show forth better His goodness and for the greater good of the whole.


  • From Aquinas’s answer to the third objection of the third article it appears that he is taking the word “world” in a very limited sense as suggested by the medieval understanding of cosmology. In the light of more recent understanding of the extent of the created universe, it is interesting to speculate how Aquinas might re-write the answer to this question. He might address physical theories of the so-called “multiverse” or he might address metaphysical “many-worlds” theories. I suspect he would find the first fascinating and would give the second short shrift.


  1. Thank you for this great blog, which I just discovered today--the feast of St. Thomas!
    My question regards article 2. Thomas says that the diversity of things comes from God and is part of his divine will. "Rather, inequality exists in creation for the benefit of the whole and must be attributed to God’s wisdom in the same way as diversity is accounted to God." Does this also apply to the spiritual life?

    I'm asking because I was in a discussion where someone made this argument:

    God always wants the best for us.
    Religious life is the highest form of Christian life—ie. it is the best.
    Therefore, God desires for each of us to enter religious life.

    I think there's something wrong with this argument since it leads to an absurd conclusion--obviously God doesn't want everyone to enter religious life, or the human race would come to an end! Prescinding from the question of whether or not religious life is the highest (best) form of Christian life, does it follow that just because something is the best, God has to will it for us?

    I would think that God wills the diversity of states of life, etc., just as he wills the diversity of things in the material world.
    What do you think? Thank you!

  2. Sr. Marianne,

    Welcome to the blog!

    Yes, this principle of diversity for the benefit of the whole applies equally to the spiritual life; one can trace this back at least to St. Paul’s teaching on the charisms. For St. Thomas on the diversity of states of life, see IIa-IIae.qq179-189. In particular, IIa-IIae.q184 is especially useful.

    As for the argument you reproduce, there is quite a lot wrong with it! In the first place what God wants for us is our ultimate good in the beatific vision; the various states of perfection in this life will be suited differently to different people with regard to achieving this ultimate good. Put more simply, God wants us to get to heaven; how we get there depends to a certain extent on us!

    In IIa-IIae.q184.a1 Aquinas identifies the perfection of the Christian life in charity; this what will lead us to heaven. One might also refer to IIa-IIae.q184.a7 where Aquinas identifies that the episcopal state is more perfect than the religious life as the bishop is the “perfecter” whereas the religious is the one being perfected.

  3. Thank you very much for your kind and informative reply!

  4. Could you kindly help me on the following points:

    1. Was there time before Creation ended? Are time and existence the same thing?

    2. What happened to things once they were created. Did they hibernate whilst awaiting to be activated in Providence?

    3. When did the world start to operate?

    Peter Wilders (