Thomas and ontotheology

And so we return to the question whether to say that esse is predicable of both God and creatures is 'onto-theological'. Thomas, of course, knows no such nomenclature; but he knows the question and entertains it for himself. If God's simplicity gets its root meaning in the identity of God's essentia and esse,30 this poses the further objection that if God's esse and God's essentia were identical, if God were to be described as ipsum esse subsistens, it would seem to follow that God's existence (esse) was an existence of no particular kind - 'unspecific existence'. From that it would seem further to follow that the name 'God' would simply name 'existence in general', that is, unspecifically any kind of existence, whether created or uncreated - and this would appear fatally to break the firm rule of the logic of esse on which we have seen Thomas so to insist: esse per se convenit formae, it makes no sense to speak of esse but of no particular kind. Now this would seem to be a telling objection, particularly as posed for so enthusiastic a follower of the pseudo-Denys as Thomas, for the pseudo-Denys's famous saying, 'There is no kind of thing that God is', could easily be interpreted as entailing the consequence, 'God exists, but his existence is of no kind; hence, God is, unspecifically, "existence as such".' In turn, that could be interpreted in one of two ways: either as meaning that 'God' names the overarching category of 'being' of which all beings other than God are instances, from which the pantheistic consequence would follow that all created beings are 'instances' of God; or else as meaning that both God and creatures are instances falling under the general category of 'being'. Both would be forms, one supposes, of onto-theological error, since either way the difference between God and creatures would be reduced to that which could obtain between 'beings' belonging to the same, albeit most general possible, category.

The objection provides Thomas with an opportunity to clarify what could possibly be meant by the pseudo-Denys's dictum. In agreeing that God is not 'any kind of thing', or that God is ipsum esse subsistens, Thomas is not consenting to some notion - as one might be tempted to suppose -that the name 'God' names an utterly empty category. That we cannot form any 'concept' of God is due not to the divine vacuousness, but, on the contrary, to the excessiveness of the divine plenitude. That excessive-ness eludes our language because we could not comprehend it except in a surplus of description which utterly defeats our powers of unification under any conception, an excessiveness which is exactly captured in the

30 ST 1a q3 a4 corp.

full text of the Dionysian formula, 'There is no kind of thing which God is, and there is no kind of thing which God is not.' If ever there were a compendious statement of the relationship between the apophatic and the cataphatic in the pseudo-Denys's writing, this is it: for it says that God is beyond our comprehension not because we cannot say anything about God, but because we are compelled to say too much. In short, for the pseudo-Denys, and for Thomas following him, the 'apophatic' consists in the excessus of the 'cataphatic'.31

And so Thomas makes a distinction between two logically different kinds of 'unspecificness', or, as we might put it, two kinds of 'undifferentiating or, as we might put it in a third set of terms, between two ways of being 'beyond both similarity and difference'.32 In the first kind of case, he explains, further specification is excluded, as 'reason is excluded by definition from irrational animals'. In that case, he adds, the exclusion of the specification 'rational' adds content to the concept 'animal', since, by virtue of the exclusion of the differentia 'rational', we know that what is referred to is, specifically, non-human animals - brutes. By contrast, in the second kind of case, 'unspecificness' is achieved by indifference to either inclusion or exclusion, as when we speak of the genus 'animal in general' indifferently as between 'rational' and 'non-rational', between humans and brutes.

When we say, therefore, that God is ipsum esse subsistens - hence, that there is no kind of thing that God is - we could mean that God's existence is 'unspecific' in either sense. To mean it in the second sense would turn out to mean that God's existence is such as to be indifferent to any kind of specification - and that, for sure, would be 'onto-theological' error, since it would certainly entail that the name 'God' named the entirely empty category of'ens commune', as if God were some most general 'concept' of which beings are 'instances' - or, on the contrary, that God is just another 'instance' of 'beings' falling under that general concept.

And, of course, Thomas denies that the identity of essentia and esse in God entails that second kind of'unspecificness'. For God's simplicity consists, on the contrary, in this alone, that in God all specification of this and that is excluded - 'there is no kind ofbeing that God is', or, as we might put it, if 'specificness' is excluded from God, then 'exclusion' is excluded from God. The paradox is, therefore, that this kind of 'unspecificness' of the divine esse, this 'otherness', this being 'beyond similarity and difference', is such as to be totally inclusive, which is the opposite of what one might have supposed. For note that the specific difference 'rational'

31 For a fuller discussion of this point, see my Eros and Allegory, pp. 53-6.

divides the genus 'animal' into exclusive species ('rational' and 'nonrational'), such that, if the one then not the other: if any animal exists, then it is either a rational animal or a non-rational animal. Both belong to the same genus, but, of course, there cannot exist an animal which is, just, generically an animal, being neither rational nor non-rational. But if, per impossibile, a generic animal could exist, it could not be neither rational nor non-rational, for then it would have none of the character of either; it would have to be both rational and non-rational in some way which excluded both specifications, in order to exclude the disjunction between them, and thus contain the notions of both in some non-exclusive way: by, to use an expression of Eckhart's (though not of Thomas') 'negating the negation' between them.

No doubt, such a supposition of an actually existent genus is absurd, for a genus as such cannot exist. But the hypothesised absurdity brings out a central paradox of language about God of which, at this point in his argument, Thomas is acutely observant. For it is by virtue of the divine nature's excluding every possible specification - that is to say, by virtue of excluding every differentia whatever - that God's nature is such as to exclude all exclusion; hence, God stands in no relation of any kind of exclusion with anything whatever. God, as Eckhart says, is distinct in this exactly, that God alone is 'indistinct' - not, as Thomas observes, by virtue of an 'indistinctness' which is an excess of indeterminacy taken to the point of absolute generalised vacuousness, but by an excess of deter-minacy, taken to the point of absolutely total plenitude: 'There is no kind of thing', the pseudo-Denys says, 'which God is not', or, as Thomas himself put it, God is 'virtually' everything that there is, containing, as it were, every differentia as the cause of them all, but such that 'what are diverse and exclusive in themselves pre-exist in God as one, without detriment to his simplicity'.33 That is why we cannot comprehend God: the 'darkness' of God is the simple excess of light. God is not too indeterminate to be known; God is unknowable because too comprehensively determinate, too actual. It is in that excess of actuality that the divine unknowability consists.

If there are therefore no grounds in logic for disallowing Thomas to say, as he does with some essential clarifications and precisions of terms, that esse is predicable 'in common' of God and creatures, what can justify our predicating esse of God? The full answer to this cannot be obtained until the penultimate chapter of this essay, but what we can say in the meantime is that, whatever are the grounds on which we are enabled to

33 'Quae sunt diversa et opposita in seipsis, in Deo praeexistunt ut unum, absque detrimento simplicitatis ipsius.' ST 1a q4 a2 ad1.

understand created esse as that which stands against there being nothing at all, just the same are the grounds on which we are able to say that the esse of a creature is to be created. But in knowing that for anything to exist is for it to be created is thus far to understand the name 'God' as the pure, undifferentiated, wholly inclusive 'act' from which all exclusion is excluded. We know God, in short, in so far as we know the esse of creatures, as Creator of all things, 'visible and invisible', and as the exemplar and cause of all that is, so that whatever is true of a creature is in some way true of God. From a proof of God we shall know that something or other answers to all that. But what it is, the divine esse, that is and must be utterly beyond all thought. Thus does Thomas escape through the horns of the Derridean dilemma.

Part III

Inference and the existence of God

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