Avicenna william of Auvergne and Aquinas on the Divine Essence1

John P.Rosheger

In the De ente et essentia, Aquinas refers to certain philosophers who say that God does not have a quiddity or essence, because his essence is not other than his being (esse) (Aquinas, DEE 5.1; 378, Leonine). And in his commentary on Lombard's Sentences, Aquinas singles out Avicenna and Maimonides as holding to the notion that divine being (esse) is without essence (Aquinas, Sent. 1.2.1.3; 1:67, Mandonnet).2 Apparently for Avicenna and Maimonides, at least in Aquinas' estimation, the denial of any real composition with the Godhead has led to the conclusion that God is without an essence or quiddity. Ultimately, God is regarded as being itself (ipsum esse), pure and unalloyed. Moreover, in that William of Auvergne so closely parallels Avicenna on the issue of a divine "whatness,"3 as he was one of the first Schoolmen in the Latin West to appropriate the work of Avicenna, he is sometimes included in Aquinas' indictment by modern commentators.4

In Aquinas, on the other hand, the formulation for God's absolute simpleness is particularly significant in that rather than merely deny one part of the metaphysical distinction of esse (to-be) and essence, he affirms both aspects, yet retains, nonetheless, the notion of simplicity by equating them in God (Aquinas, DEE 4-5; 375-79, Leonine).5 Even when God is regarded as being itself (ipsum esse per se subsistens) (Aquinas, ST 1.4.2; 1:22, Marietti), Aquinas never says that God has no essence or "whatness," but that his being is his essence, or that his essence is simply to-be.

Such concern over a divine "whatness" is no small matter. For the denial of a divine essence threatens to reduce the ultimate being to a "blank idea," to some great-I-know-not-what, or perhaps to some primeval, cosmic force. If God cannot be identified, is there any room for upholding the individual or unique character of such a reality? Moreover, does such talk eliminate a referent? If there is no "what," then what could one possibly be referring to in speaking of the divine? At issue here is nothing other than the very possibility of traditional theism, maintaining as it does, a personal deity, which manifests various attributes or properties. With no divine referent in place, it can be argued that all that remains is no-theism, a kind of radical theological agnosticism, having the practical effects of a-theism. Or, to look at the issue in another way, if God is found to be indistinguishable from the rest of reality, we would inevitably be left with some form of pantheism.

In dealing with the above conundrum, both Avicenna and William of Auvergne were confronted by the Neoplatonic tendency to "de-essentialize" the ultimate principle.6 Since at least the time of Plotinus, there has been the struggle of preserving the transcendent character of deity against language or terminology, namely that of essence or form, that would delimit or circumscribe God. How could the ultimate principle be described in "essentialist" terms, when essence or form serves to demarcate the nature or "whatness" of one type of being or entity over another, thereby imposing definition and limitation?7

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