God Simply Is the Sheer Act of Existing

st-thomas-aq“The doctrine of God’s simplicity,” states James Dolezal, “reaches the zenith of expression and sophistication in the thought of Thomas Aquinas” (God Without Parts, p. 6). One might even argue that it forms the lynchpin of St Thomas’s understanding of divinity. The doctrine enables him to carefully distinguish deity from all created beings, firmly establishing God as absolute reality and ultimate explanation for the existence of the world. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas examines the divine simplicity under multiple aspects and reaches the following conclusion:

God is not composed of extended parts (since he is not a body), nor of form and matter, nor does he differ from his own nature, nor his nature from his existence. Nor can we distinguish in him genus and difference, nor substance and accidents. It is therefore clear that God is in no way composite. Rather, he is entirely simple. (I.3.7)

Thomas’s predecessors in Christian theology, both in the East and the West, would have been well acquainted with the specific forms of composition that he denies of the eternal Creator; all, that is, except one—the denial in God of a distinction between his existence and his essence.

It is generally conceded that this is a distinction that was unknown, or not clearly known, in antiquity. It is a distinction that Greek seems verbally ill-equipped to make, since the word ousia does double duty for both essence and existence. It is a distinction that is generally thought to have been introduced into Western thought by Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna and Jewish thinkers such as Moses Maimonides, though perhaps hints of it can be found in Boethius’ De Hebdomadibus. (Frederick Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, p. 89)

This does not mean that Eastern theologians did not have at their disposal manifold ways to speak of God’s nature and aseity—just compare St John of Damascus’s discussion of divinity in On the Orthodox Faith—but apparently they lacked the conceptuality to equate divine existence and divine essence. With the Angelic Doctor a genuinely creative step-forward occurs:  there is in God not a whit of difference between what he is (his essence) and that he is (his existence). Ipsum Esse Subsistens—God is identical to his act of Being, or to phrase it a bit more colloquially, God is sheer existing.

Of every created entity, we may ask two questions: what is its nature, and does it actually exist? Answering the first question does not give us an answer to the second. Consider the question “What is ____?” If we fill the blank with the name of any thing we find in the world, we will be able to answer the question (assuming we know the answer) without mentioning its existence at all. If, for example, we ask, “What is a human being?” we might reasonably reply, “A rational animal.” We need not add the phrase “that exists.” It does not improve or clarify our response to the request for a definition. We can grasp the “what-it-is” of an entity, in other words, without having to determine whether it exists. As Bauerschmidt puts it: “Our act of understanding a thing’s quidditas [whatness] is something distinct from the act of judging whether things such as men or phoenixes really exist. And therefore, Thomas concludes, a thing’s existence must be different from its essence” (p. 89).

This distinction between essence and existence also applies to imaginary entities. If you ask me, “What are elves?” I will explain that they are rational children of Ilúvatar, but unlike human beings, they are immortal and exist as long as the world lasts. They do not suffer disease, and after reaching maturity they do not age. If slain, they are reincarnated in the Halls of Mandos. (If my answer perplexes, I refer you to the sacred writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.) I can say all of this while prescinding from the question whether elves exist or not (personally I hope they do). Existence, therefore, appears to be something that an essence receives—that which makes it actual. This is probably not a helpful way for me to express it, as it seems to reify existence and might be interpreted to mean that entities exist before they exist. Be that as it may (I ain’t no philosopher), the important thing to see is that the nature of something does not include the property of existence—except, says Aquinas, for God:

God is not only his own godhead; he is also his own existence. Firstly, properties that do not define a thing derive either from what does define it (when common to a species, like humour in men), or from an outside cause (like heat in water). But existence, if it does not define a thing, cannot derive from what does define it, for that would mean the thing depended on itself for existence. So unless existence defines God he must receive it from outside. Secondly, unless existence defines God he will have a potentially existent nature: for it is existence that realizes forms and nature. (We use the verb is to signify both the act of existing, and the mental uniting of predicate to subject which constitutes a proposition. In the first sense we cannot know the existence of God any more than we can define him; but we can say there is a God, framing a proposition about God which we can know to be true by argument from his effects.) (ST I.3.4; concisely rendered by Timothy McDermott, Summa Theologiae, p. 15)

No creature carries in itself the reason for its being. Every creature, therefore, is ontologically contingent—only by the grace of God does it exist—and therefore a metaphysical composite of essence and existence.  Commenting on the above passage from the Summa, Bauerschmidt writes:  “Existence is not a part of the definition of any created thing; even more, it cannot be derived from that definition, as the ability to laugh can be derived from the definition of human beings as rational animals, for the existence of a particular thing’s essence presupposes that the thing exist” (Holy Teaching, p. 59, n. 8). But not so with the eternal Creator, who is perfect simplicity. If God is God—that is to say, the ultimate and final answer to the question “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” (the burden of the Five Ways)—then he cannot suffer from essence/existence composition. God does not potentially exist; he necessarily exists. Deity is the mystery where the ontological buck finally stops. Here is perhaps Thomas’s most important contribution to Christian reflection upon divinity. The eternal Creator and first mover must exist in and of himself. He cannot derive existence from some other source; otherwise the question of “why” would continue ad infinitum. But not only must God exist, he is his existence: the whatness of God is identical to his act of existing (ipsum essendi). “God exists (as is proved by the existence of his effects), explains Timothy McDermott, “but he does not share existence in the way everything else does, he is not a member of the genus thing—he is no thing, though not nothing. He is his own existence: not even the existence that other things share, but the doing of that existence” (p. xxxiii).

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15 Responses to God Simply Is the Sheer Act of Existing

  1. brian says:

    And if I could add one of my favorite insights from ‘existential Thomism,’ this also means that our habitual way of thinking of existence as “the lowest common denominator” by which we determine if something is real or imaginary is a terribly inadequate and impoverished concept. All the qualitative richness of unique particulars is a finite participation in the infinite richness of Existence. Rather than an abstract assertion that can be specified by “facts,” existence is a plenitude that defeats investigative attempts at comprehension. Just as Augustine said, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God,” one may say the same for existence.

    The modern question of existence utterly lacks awareness of its mystery. Therefore, it treats it as a boring and obvious matter. Modernity treats it as something that has been understood. Modern consciousness does not wonder at existence or condescends to allow enchantment as a naive and childish moment, something that can be got past. Yet “Is” can never be properly grasped. “Is” is not a static thing, cannot be possessed as “finished,” stored away for convenient use by techniques of mastery. “Is” is dynamic, gifted, surprising. One cannot survey existence in the epic mode. Further revelation, drama, a dance beyond the capture of any cold gaze enacts existence. Heidegger wanted to remind us of the active voice of “is.” He wanted to warn us of the “forgetting of Being,” though he himself forgot.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, have you read much of Gilson? If yes, which of his books do you recommend?

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      • brian says:

        Father,

        Pieper, Gilson, and Maritain were the Thomists I first encountered and with the addition of Norris Clarke, they remain important figures in shaping my metaphysical understanding, though I feel free to range outside of Thomism. I did read a lot of Gilson, but most of this is from twenty five years ago. Hence, I cannot give detailed recollections. My sense is I absorbed a lot, as with C. S. Lewis in another context, that just became the habitual furniture of my mind. Below are the titles I remember as being important or helpful.

        The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
        God and Philosophy
        Being and Some Philosophers
        Wisdom and Love in St. Thomas Aquinas

        More recently, I picked up The Unity of Philosophical Experience and thought it good.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Totally with you in your first paragraph. Which is why I can’t believe you actually mean

      “The modern question of existence utterly lacks awareness of its mystery”

      Unless maybe you’re talking exclusively about academic philosophy? And I’m not sure what you mean by, “One cannot survey existence in the epic mode.” Since now you must be talking literature, rather than any sort of academic discourse, you’ve got my attention if you care to elaborate.

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      • brian says:

        Jonathan,

        It is probably just poor word choice on my part. I wrote that late in my work day and the first time I tried to post reply, for some reason it didn’t take. It also would not allow me to cut and paste into a word document, so I scribbled it down longhand and the result was a bit of a mess. What I intended was to indicate that a positivist, univocal scientism does not find existence surprising. It simply accepts being as a sort of “mechanical fact.” Order and design is a happenstance product of chance and the more fundamental wonder that there is something at all rather than nothing is simply not experienced so that the question of existence is a kind of metaphysical surd.

        As far as epic goes, I was actually applying to metaphysics a paradigm Balthasar employs for theology. He argues against an “epic” theology in which the divine stands off in detachment and watches the play of creatures as an (interested?) spectator. This is obviously false to a Christian understanding. (Deism, Stephen Dedalus’ Creator off paring his fingernails,etc., is epic.) I have tried to allude to this idea before. Our encounters with being are never such that prior experience gives us a comprehensive and stable essence that can be recorded and then used as an intellectual counter in a game. We must always leave room for surprise, for the post-modern “supplement”. Naturally, there is some stability or one would not have discernible things at all. I am following through the kind of protest against modern attempts to “master reality” that one gets from Cartesian ideas or Heidegger’s “standing reserve.” In short, I surmise infinite depths in creatures as part of the gift of being from the Infinite Source of Being. These depths cannot be known beforehand, so they must be discovered in unique, particular encounters. This knowledge is not neutral and abstract, but determined both by the unique reality of the beloved — whether the “beloved” is a person, an animal, a flower or a stone — and by the receptive capacity of the knower. Knowledge is thus a product of synergy. And as Hart indicated in the lecture Father posted awhile back, the mode of consciousness affects the quality of perception. Only the lover truly absorbs the beauty of the other, which is the radiance of unique being. Hence, wisdom and love are ultimately identical.

        All this is part of a “dramatic” metaphysics that is open the way Gregory of Nyssa’s eschatology is open. It is Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy — which in no way is meant to imply that epic does not have its own grandeur, but its form of gnosis is inferior. Similarly, this is also what Bakhtin is after and Plato insofar as they espouse a dialogic reality. Desmond’s metaxological metaphysics appeals to me because it seems to carry the same insistence whilst engaging modern philosophy with critical acuity.

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  2. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    “they lacked the conceptuality to equate divine existence and divine essence”

    How so? Sure, medieval particularities of language and thought one will in vain find in the Greek fathers of late antiquity, but where’s the evidence of such conceptual poverty in regards to linking essence with existence? Nyssa in the late 300’s writes at length and repeatedly against the Anomeans about the divine essence (juxtaposed to created essences) “owning the same cause of His being”. The identification of divine essence with existence (the what is the same and the that, as you put it), is repeatedly employed establishing God’s essential otherness and existence over the created order to demonstrate the divinity of the Only-begotten and the Holy Spirit: the Son and the Spirit are self-existent (i.e. exist in the manner – the “that” in the equation – the Father does) coincidental to the essential – the “what” in the equation – consubstantiality of the three divine persons. No?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think what Bauerschmidt is saying is that the specific formulation of the divine nature and divine existence did not exist in patristic times. Clearly the Fathers had an understanding of the divine self-existence, but that is not quite the same thing as saying that God simply is the doing of existence.

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      • I think Fr. Kimel accurately reports what I was trying to get at. The Greek Fathers clearly thought that God could not not exist and that this distinguished God radically from creatures. What Thomas (thanks to Avicenna and Maimonides) comes across is a different way of expressing this. Also, the flip-side of the coin with regard to the unity of essence and existence in God is their distinction in creatures. This is possibly the greater innovation of Thomas’s part, allowing him to explain how even non-corporeal creatures are still distinguished from God by their “compositeness.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A second thought: Is Aquinas’s claim that God is Actus Essendi possible within a Platonic or Neo-Platonic framework? Would it make any sense once one has identified God as beyond Being?

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      • brian says:

        Father,

        Aquinas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius liberally. I personally read Thomas as a Christian Platonist. This is made problematic by the fact that there are many versions of both Thomas and Plato, but I think they can be reconciled as long as one properly adjusts Platonic concepts in the light of Christian revelation, which is what the patristics routinely did.

        God beyond Being is not really consistent with Aquinas (though Jean Luc Marion tried to make an argument for this some time ago.) It becomes a matter of semantics. There are rhetorics and certain metaphysical positions in which it makes sense to speak of God beyond Being. (Yannaras’ juxtaposition of person against a more modern notion of nature seems to me to be amenable to such language.) But I don’t think this is best for Thomas.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Brian, you may find this passage from Fran O’Rourke’s Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas of interest:

        For Dionysius, God is Good because as Non-Being he transcends Being; for Aquinas he is Good because he is transcendent Being itself. According to Dionysius, God enjoys the fullness of perfection—that perfection which is mirrored or shared by creatures—because he is beyond reality. For Aquinas, he does so only because he is in an intensive manner esse realissimum. God’s transcendence is precisely one of Being, an identity with Being in its fullness rather than a transcendene beyond Being. (p. 206)

        I have only glanced through this book, but one day I hope to read it—and understand perhaps 10% of it. 🙂

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have not read Plato or Aristotle since college (way back in the dark ages) and have never read Dionysius. I am philosophically handicapped and severely so.

    Let me pass on one anecdote. Sometime during my junior or senior year, I went to visit Henry B. Veatch, who was teaching at Georgetown. I had recently read his book Rational Man. He was a great gentleman and cordially received me. During the course of the conversation, I remember him remarking, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I can smell-out a Platonist from miles away.”

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  4. brian says:

    Great anecdote.

    The Professor at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
    “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

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  5. brian says:

    Father, below is an excerpt from Norris Clarke’s page from Fordham’s website. (I pulled it from anthony.flood.com, so I don’t know if it is still discoverable at Fordham’s site.) Clarke taught at Fordham and was emeritus. He died in 2008 at the age of 93. I met him once and spent several hours chatting about Thomas and life in general. A thoroughly engaging fellow.

    The next significant phase of my philosophical development came during my Ph.D. studies at Louvain, under the well-known Thomists Van Steenberghen and De Raeymaeker. Here I shared in the exciting rediscovery of the central role of Neoplatonic participation in the metaphysics of Thomas, especially as the basic structure behind the relation of creatures to God, going far beyond what he could get from Aristotle alone—all this from my reading and discussions with Geiger, Fabro, De Finance, etc. Now I came to understand St. Thomas’s entire metaphysical system as an original synthesis of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. I wrote my thesis precisely on the development of this synthesis in Thomas (summarized in the first, widely circulated article in my list of publications) a theme not yet widely known, it seems, in American Catholic Thomistic circles.

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  6. It seems to me that this one conclusions is essential, particularly as a response to Atheistic skepticism. All things exist and as you point out, this is not explained for in their description. A zebra then is a zebra because of its attributes and not because of its existence – which is taken as for certain. Things however exist, and this deserves some sort of explanation. The answer must be that existence is itself an entity. Existence is not just an arbitrary result of cosmic causes and effects, it is rather the very ‘stuff’ that gives those things existence.

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