St Thomas Aquinas: God as the Act of Being

Well over a decade ago, I asked Fr Augustine Dinoia (now Archbishop Dinoia) the best way for me to begin reading St Thomas Aquinas. He recommended Timothy McDermott’s concise translation of the Summa Theologiæ. I began reading the book, making my way through a large part of the doctrine of God. Although intended for beginners like myself, I found it hard sledding. I have little training in ancient and scholastic philosophy. Circumstances eventually compelled me to put the book aside, but always with the intent to return to Aquinas at a later date. That time is now. Rather than returning to the concise Summa, this time I thought I would read the little book Aquinas on Creation, which contains the six articles devoted to creation from Aquinas’s Writings on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard. This, too, I have found hard sledding; but the sledding has been made easier by the introduction and analysis provided by the two translators. In this short blog series, I will discuss those points that I have found particularly interesting. I welcome instruction and correction.

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To be Creator is to give being. Nothing extraordinary here. This is a fundamental Christian claim. But Aquinas gives it a particular twist, grounded in the apprehension that in God existence and essence are identical. When we consider the existence of our fellow creatures, as well as ourselves, we observe a clear distinction between their natures and their existence. They do not have to be. There is nothing about them, nothing in their natures, that require that they exist. The essence of every entity raises the question, why? The opposite, however, is true for God: God necessarily exists, must exist. If we were able to comprehend his nature, we would know that not only that he exists but that it is his very nature to exist; his non-existence would be unthinkable. God is his own explanation, his own act of existing.  And so Aquinas defined divinity as actus essendi, the act and doing of being. Thus the Angelic Doctor:

The nature of being is found in all things, in some more nobly, in others less nobly, such that the natures of the things themselves are not the very being which they have. Otherwise, being would belong to the concept of the quiddity [nature] of any thing, which is false, since the quiddity of any thing can be understood without understanding whether the thing exists. Natures must, therefore, have being from something [else], and there must be ultimately a nature which is its own being, otherwise there would be an infinite regress. And this it is which gives being to all, and there can only be one [such being], since the nature of being is of the same meaning in all, according to analogy. (II Sent. 1.1.1; p. 66)

If there is a divine Creator, which Aquinas clearly believes there must be, then he is his own existence; he does not receive it from another. As the translators explain: “Being (existence) is essential to that which needs no cause of being” (p. 39).

(Go to “Creatures are nothing but Nothing”)

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10 Responses to St Thomas Aquinas: God as the Act of Being

  1. I asked my Latin professor last week if after learning Latin I would be able to understand St Thomas Aquinas in Latin. He said, “Yes.” I said, “Good, because I wasn’t able to understand him in English.”

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    • grzeszdel says:

      Actually, Thomas Aquinas’ Latin is the easiest part of him to understand. It is almost like Italian, only with case endings on the nouns.

      I took a course on post-classical Latin in college. The week that we did readings in Aquinas, everyone came in and said that this was the hardest assignment of all. None of us could understand a thing we had read. Then the professor asked us to take it in turns translating paragraphs on the blackboard, and everyone of us whizzed right through. These were some of the easiest translations that any of us had ever done.

      The problem was not the Latin. The problem was that the translation product you get on the other side is really dense.

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  2. brian says:

    Father,

    I also have the McDermott translation and the five volume translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. For most modern readers, its simply difficult to read Thomas with requisite feeling and understanding. The syllogistic mode is not our own. McDermott is meant to translate all that into a more modern presentation, but I still find it often dry going. The brilliance and warmth of Thomas is not served by a mode utterly lacking in lyricism. One must look to a few examples of Thomas’ poetry to find a more compelling demonstration of what is hidden in the philosophy.

    There are lots of good commentators and even more bad ones. I have personally found Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, and Norris Clarke to be particularly helpful. F. C. Bauerschmidt and Robert Barron have good books on Thomas. Aidan Nichols shows how a Thomist metaphysic underlies Hans Urs von Balthasar’s basic understanding, though a certain kind of Thomist is likely not to appreciate Balthasar. (In my opinion, Balthasar is the greatest twentieth century Catholic theologian and a great influence on my own way of thinking.) Back to Thomas, Herbert McCabe is sound, though I discovered him after my understanding of Thomas was largely determined. I dislike Peter Kreeft’s populism and penchant for groaner puns, but he is also a decent guide.

    When one broaches what Thomists call the real distinction (the difference between essence and existence,) it is apt to sound as merely a recognition of God’s necessity and the creature’s contingency. It is far more than that — and here I am largely following Clarke who emphasizes the neo-platonic doctrine of participation rethought by Aquinas. It is not merely that God’s essence is existence, but that every mode of being we encounter in all its complexity and nuance bears a richness and infinite depth because each is a minute determination and participation in the richness that God’s existence is. Think of the wonder inducing order and design and mystery of nature when one knows it as a child or as an adult who is suddenly surprised beyond the coercive mastery and narrow quantified range of our instrumental science; of what Bergson called the elan vitale whereby being dances and sings, or of how Blake says that everything that is is holy. In short, existence is not a bare fact of “being real,” rather than “being imagined” or unreal; the Being of God contains a richness that is always greater than the entirety of all the richness of all possible creatures. It is a dynamic, infinite act, not a static proposition of arid metaphysics. This understanding of God is also the logic behind metaphor and the analogy of being and why things are always message bearing, more than themselves, reaching towards an infinite destiny that resists univocal closure.

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    • Jonathan says:

      I second the recommendation of Pieper. He has done more for me than anyone in opening up the “brilliance and warmth” of Aquinas. And, I would add, the openness of his thought, its questing nature, which is of course concomitant with the understanding of the real distinction you expound here. To the modern the syllogistic mode sounds not only dry, but closed off and narrow. Pieper really helps one see how adventurous and dynamic Aquinas was. Also, I love that Pieper appreciates that the saint walked back and forth across western Europe a few times. One doesn’t need to be Thoreau to realize this is related to the man’s thought.

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      • brian says:

        Well said, Jonathan. Pieper is a wonderful guide to wisdom in and of himself. The questing nature is a perfect way to express Thomas. MacIntyre also talks about this in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. And though not everyone likes him and this is tangential, perhaps, I remain fond of Belloc. He was also one who walked.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Brian, for this exposition of esse in Aquinas. I have encountered this existential understanding in a couple of authors (namely, Gilson and Mascall); but I am incapable of articulating it, at least with any measure of confidence.

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  3. Speaking of St Thomas Aquinas translations, would any one suggest Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa?
    http://www.amazon.com/A-Summa-Thomas-Aquinas/dp/089870300X

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    • Peregrinus says:

      Kreeft’s edition is a solid introduction utilizing a classic translation. Works well as a text book in class settings, indicentally, esp. for someone with no prior philosophical training. As an abridgement of the entire Summa, however, it makes some lamentable omissions.

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  4. Peregrinus says:

    I am looking forward to the rest of this series, Father. I resolved myself to work through Maritain’s “Existence and the Existent” over the next few weeks, so our distinct courses of reading will undoubtedly intersect.

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  5. Chris says:

    I would also mention Fr David Burrell CSC as a masterful interpreter of Aquinas.

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