The Dionysian Principle and the Necessitarian Explanation of Creation

The claim that God's goodness is the very willing itself isn't merely the familiar sort of acknowledgement of the demands of simplicity. It is also, and much more importantly, an echo of a Neoplatonist principle Aquinas often appeals to, sometimes attributing it to end p.223


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Dionysius: Goodness is by its very nature diffusive of itself and (thereby) of


34 'Dionysius', or Pseudo-Dionysius, is the otherwise unidentified author of four Christian Neoplatonist treatises and ten letters dating from the sixth century. These works had special authority during the Middle Ages, when they were thought to have been written by the Athenian Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17: 34 as having been converted by St Paul's sermon on Mars Hill. On the history of this principle see esp. Peghaire 1932 and Kremer 1965.

I think this Dionysian principle expresses an important truth about goodness, most obviously about the goodness of agents, which is the only kind at issue here. There is no obvious inconsistency in the notion of knowledge that is unexpressed, never shared by the agent who possesses it even if that agent is omnipotent; but there is inconsistency in the notion of goodness that is unmanifested, never shared, even though united with omnipotence. The use Aquinas makes of the Dionysian principle on many occasions suggests that

he, too, at least most of the time, considers it to be important and true.

35 See the list in Peghaire 1932: 19* nn. 45 and 46, and scattered references in subsequent notes in that article.

He rejects it very rarely, but very emphatically, just when he is confronted with it as suggesting a necessitarian explanation of creation. For example, 'If God were to deny his goodness in such a way as to do something contrary to his goodness, or something in which his goodness was not expressed, it would follow that he would, per impossibile, deny himself. However, that would not follow even if he did not share his goodness at all, for it would be

no loss at all to goodness if it were not shared' (QDP 3.15, ad 12).

36 See also e.g. QDP 3.15, objs. 1, 5, 12, and 14 along with Aquinas's rejoinders.

Despite Aquinas's explicit opposition to a necessitarian explanation of God's willing of other things, he sometimes writes in a way that indicates that he does see God's creating as an instance of the natural self-diffusion of goodness, as in this passage from SCG I, where he is discussing not creation itself but God's goodness: 'The sharing (communicatio) of being and goodness proceeds from goodness. This is of course evident, both from the nature of the good and from its definition (ratione) ... It is for this reason that the good is said to be diffusive of itself and of being. Now this diffusion is attributable to God, for it was shown above [1.13] that he is the cause of being for other things' (37.307). God is perfect goodness itself, and goodness is essentially—from its nature and from its definition—diffusive of itself and of being. Doesn't it follow end p.224


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved that the volition to create is a consequence not of God's free choice but of God's very nature?

As more pointed evidence that it does follow, consider, finally, this passage, in which Aquinas is discussing God's willing the existence of things other than himself: '[E]very agent, to the extent to which it is in actuality and perfect, produces something like itself. That is why this, too, pertains to the essential nature of will—that the good that anyone has he shares with others as much as possible. Moreover, it pertains above all to the divine will, from which every perfection is derived in virtue of a kind of likeness' (ST la.19.2c).

If I'm right about Aquinas's natural theology's committing him to a necessitarian explanation of God's willing of things other than himself, then we haven't yet found good grounds for attributing to God free choice and the full-fledged personhood that is to some extent dependent on free choice. But I think such grounds are available in his system, and that he sometimes comes very close to putting them forward in just the way I think would be appropriate: 'Speaking absolutely, God of course does not will things [other than himself] necessarily . . . because his goodness has no need of things that stand in an ordered relationship to it except for purposes of

manifestation, which can be carried out appropriately in various ways.

37 There is a textual difficulty at this point. See Kretzmann 1991a: 222 n. 48, where

I (reluctantly) adopted a different reading.

And so there remains for him a free choice for willing this one or that one, just as in our own case' (QDV 24.3c). Goodness does require something other than itself as a manifestation of itself. God therefore necessarily (though with the freedom associated with counterfactual choice) wills the being of something other than himself. And the free choice in God's will is confined to the selection of which possibilities to actualize for purposes of manifestation. As I see it, then, God's will is necessitated as regards whether to create, but fully free as regards what to create.

end p.225

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

The Metaphysics of Theism

Print ISBN 9780199246533, 2001 pp. [226]-[230]

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