Evidence For a Divine Whatness

With respect to Avicenna's discussion of God's "whatness," matters are seriously complicated. For in the very same chapter of the (or Liber de philosophia prima) where a divine quiddity (mahiyya) is disallowed, Avicenna suggests that we do not so much deny a quiddity to the first as identify that quiddity with "anitas" (ann;yya/"whetherness"), very much in the way that Aquinas would. In other words, God would have no quiddity or essence except his being (esse). As Avicenna writes, "Therefore, the necessary being (esse) has no quiddity (quidditas) except that it is necessary being, and this is anitas" (PP 8.4 [2:401/A346]).17

The identification of God's quiddity (mahiyya) with his being (wujud/ anniyya) is consistently maintained throughout the Avicennian corpus. For example, in the al-Risala ai- arshiyya, Avicenna states, "So, if it is established that He has no efficient cause, this leads us to think that His quiddity [mahiyya] is His individual nature [anniyya],... Thus it has been established that the individual nature [anniyya] of Him who is necessary of existence is His quiddity [mahiyya], that He has no efficient cause, and that necessity of existence is for Him what quiddity [mahiyya] is for other things" (Hourani 1972, 78). Elsewhere, Avicenna holds that it would be impossible for the anniyya of the necessary being (wajib al-wujud) to be different from its mahiyya (Avicenna, Metaphysices compendium; 88, Carame). Avicenna, then, does in fact, maintain a divine quiddity (mahiyya), albeit a quiddity that is identified with its anitas.

In addition to the identity thesis of mahiyya with anniyya in relation to necessary being (wajib al-wujud), Avicenna links the divine with a quiddity (mahiyya) on other occasions as well. For example, in dealing with various divine attributes, Avicenna conjoins the necessary being to mahiyya (PP 8.7 (2:431/A368).18

However, if there is puzzlement surrounding Avicenna's use of the term "quiddity" (mahiyya) with respect to the ultimate being, there can be no doubt that the Islamic sage employs other words to designate a divine "whatness." Avicenna repeatedly applies the terms "dhat" (essentia/essence or self) and "haqiqa" (essentia/nature or reality) to necessary being (wajib al-wujud/necesse esse) (PP 1.7 [1:49/A43]; 8.4 [2:398/A343-44]).19

In the case of William of Auvergne, there is evidence of a divine "whatness" as well, if not with the designation "quidditas" then with the word "essentia." Notwithstanding the definitional sense for "essence," which clearly cannot be applied to divine being, William suggests, in no uncertain terms, that God does have an essence. From the very outset of his metaphysical treatment of the first principle (primo principio), William speaks of a being (ens) whose essence (essentia) is being (esse).20 He comments, "In this way there is also the being whose essence is for it being (esse) and whose essence we predicate, when we say, 'It is,' so that it itself and its being (esse), which we assert when we say, 'It is,' are one thing in every way" (DT 1.2 [17/65]). William later makes it clear that this description refers to the God of Scriptures (DT 4.16 [33/78]). Evidently, then, there is some sense in which the term "essence" (essentia) can be applied to divine being.

At no point in the De trinitate do we find William assuming that God is without an essence simply because his essence and his being are res una per omnem modum (one thing in every way). To the contrary, in Chapter Two of the De trinitate, William reiterates his position that God has an essence, "To this there is one sole exception, where being (esse) is said essentially, because its essence cannot be understood except through being itself (ipsum esse) since the essence and its being (esse) are in every way one thing" (DT 2.2 [21/69]). The exceptional case, of course, is divine being. Its essence (eius essentia) is identified with being itself (ipsum esse). For all other beings, esse is not included in a thing's essence. But with God, esse is said essentially; so much so, that being (esse) is said to be the proper name of his essence (DT 2.8 [23/71]).21

Indeed, that William depicts God as having an essence finds a thematic representation in the frequently stated formula ens per essentiam (a being through [its] essence).22 An ens per essentiam is indivisible and inseparable in every way (indivisible et impartibile per omnem modum) (DT 4.2 [27/74]). It is formulaic for the doctrine of absolute simplicity. In unpacking this principle, William, who fully acknowledges his dependence on Boethius, contrasts substantial or essential being from that which merely participates in it (DT 1.1 [16-17/65-66]). When predicates are applied to created entities, they express divided being; whereas in God, they indicate a united being. While the term "man" is predicated of human beings, the particular subject cannot be confused with the universal, common predicate of humanity. Man is said to participate in humanity; he possesses the quality of "humanness." God, on the other hand, is to be identified with whatever attribute is predicated of him.23 For instance, when predicating the quality "good" of man, it becomes apparent that a man is one thing, and a good man another thing. But when attributing the same predicate to God, there is no distinction between subject and predicate; God is goodness itself. Whereas God is good essentially, man is only good by participation. Such a position, then, holds that there is not any real ontological distinction between God's substance and his attributes or qualities.24 What is more, God does not participate in esse; it is of his very nature or essence to-be (esse). While the being (esse) of something created is from the things of which it is composed, divine being is not indebted to or determined by anything outside itself. Consequently, God is a being (ens) by way of his essence (ens per essentiam). There can be no denial, then, that essentia is properly applicable to divine being. Far from not having an essence, it is clear that God's essence is being itself (ipsum esse), an ens per essentiam.

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