I'll be reading, glossing, and posting Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter by chapter, about twice a week, until the final Amen. Your comments, questions, and constructive criticisms are welcome!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

SCG, Book I, Chapter 28


[1] Although the things that exist and live are more perfect than the things that merely exist, nevertheless, God, Who is not other than His being, is a universally perfect being. And I call universally perfect that to which the excellence of no genus is lacking [dico universaliter perfectum, cui non deest alicuius generis nobilitas].

[2] Every excellence in any given thing belongs to it according to its being. For man would have no excellence as a result of his wisdom unless through it he were wise. So, too, with the other excellences. Hence, the mode of a thing’s excellence is according to the mode of its being [secundum modum quo res habet esse, est suus modus in nobilitate]. For a thing is said to be more or less excellent according as its being is limited to a certain greater or lesser mode of excellence. Therefore, if there is something to which the whole power of being belongs, it can lack no excellence that is proper to some thing. But for a thing that is its own being it is proper to be according to the whole power of being [si aliquid est cui competit tota virtus essendi, ei nulla nobilitatum deesse potest quae alicui rei conveniat. Sed rei quae est suum esse, competit esse secundum totam essendi potestatem].

For example, if there were a separately existing whiteness, it could not lack any of the power of whiteness. For a given white thing lacks something of the power of whiteness through a defect in the receiver of the whiteness, which receives it according to its mode and perhaps not according to the whole power of whiteness. God, therefore, Who is His being, as we have proved above, has being according to the whole power of being itself. Hence, He cannot lack any excellence that belongs to any given thing [Deus igitur, qui est suum esse, ut supra probatum est, habet esse secundum totam virtutem ipsius esse. Non potest ergo carere aliqua nobilitate quae alicui rei conveniat].

I admit I don't know how to ascribe "color" to God. Presumably God does not lack the excellence of any genus, including that of color, but surely God is not chromatic. My hunch is that God possesses the excellence of color in the mode of causation and measure, rather than in any specific chromatic sense. After all, God qua ens summe perfectum infinitely transcends the finite mode of specific color. God preeminently possesses the excellence of the genus of color––without being subsumed under that, or any other, genus––in so far as He is the intrinsic basis (or "measure") for the genus of color. This means whatever color can do is given to it by the power of God as first, preeminent cause (cf. §7 infra). Color can not only produce effects in various entities (e.g. photovoltaic sensors, amoeba, plants, panthers, etc.) but also ground differences among entities in themselves (e.g. by differentiating "the lime-green apple" from "the maroon apple"). Causal and differentiating power are found in God in a preeminent way, first, because He energizes the existence of anything in order for it to be causally efficacious among other things, and, second, because He orders disparate things in generic and specific relations (i.e. differentiae). God is not "colored" but color is very dimly like God in so far as it reflects His causal and differentiating power.

[3] But just as every excellence and perfection is found in a thing according as that thing is, so every defect is found in it according as in some way it is not. Now, just as God bas being wholly, so non-being is wholly absent from Him. For as a thing has being, in that way is it removed from non-being. Hence, all defect is absent from God. He is, therefore, universally perfect [A Deo ergo omnis defectus absistit. Est igitur universaliter perfectus].

[4] Those things that merely exist are not imperfect because of an imperfection in absolute being [Illa vero quae tantum sunt, non sunt imperfecta propter imperfectionem ipsius esse absoluti]. For they do not possess being according to its whole power; rather, they participate in it through a certain particular and most imperfect mode.

This is why the Church rejects, say, Manicheanism. Heresies of its kind teach that anything short of God's fullness is evil, simply because it is evil qua "not-entirely-good", whereas the Church understands that things can be perfect in their own way, and are not evil simply because they are not God. Actually, as I have argued before, all anti-theistic arguments from evil boil down to the belief that God's greatest failure is creation of any kind. If God alone is wholly and perfectly good, and anything He creates necessarily pales in comparison, then, for the proponent of an argument from evil, a state of affairs in which anything less good than God exists is strange proof either that He doesn't exist or that He is unable freely to create a non-evil world. Thomas, however, teaches us that perfection is relative to a thing's actual mode of existence, not to God's absolute being per se. Or as the annotated SCG puts it, "Perfection is actuality up to standard. In a finite nature, the standard imposes limitations, according to the Aristotelian canon of the golden mean, a canon not framed for the infinite."

[5] Furthermore, everything that is imperfect must be preceded by something perfect. Thus, the seed is from the animal or the plant [Omne imperfectum ab aliquo perfecto necesse est ut praecedatur: semen enim est ab animali vel a planta]. The first being must, therefore, be most perfect. But we have shown that God is the first being. He is, therefore, most perfect. …

So the chicken did come before the egg and "orange" was named after the fruit rather than vice versa!

More seriously, however, it is perhaps an open question biologically which "thing" came first in "chickenhood." A sound metaphysic need only insists upon the fact that there must be a metaphysically prior mode of existence (essence) according to which a metaphysically subsequent entity acts. If once long ago "a chicken" did hatch from what thereby became "the first chicken egg," it is up to biologists to discover that fact. Whichever way the empirical cookie––or eggshell––crumbles, what abides is the fact that a chicken could only exist––i.e. instantiate its proper act of being––if there were an antecedent principle of perfection (i.e. a form) in the world. This I take to be one aspect of St Maximus' teaching on the abiding power of the logoi in nature, as they are energized in the Logos (cf. here1 or here2). Because God sustains the very possibility of "chickenhood" in the world, by way of His knowledge of it, a knowledge had in the Logos of His own Godhead, therefore this chickenhood at least has a metaphysical role in nature qua the prior metaphysical principle for what end up being actual chickens.

God, as St Augustine taught, has impregnated the world with "formal seeds" (rationes seminales) of being; in the course of time, these seeds may emerge into robust biological realities, thought they lay unseen for ages beforehand. This is what "evolution" means etymologically, a "rolling out" of what was rolled into the world at creation. So if by some chance an egg was laid which had mutations in it that would result in the hatching of the first chicken, it is only on account of that egg's "conforming to" a metaphysical principle of perfection that it could result in anything existentially viable in its own right. In that sense, the egg is not less perfect than the hatchling, since it also possesses––albeit in 'condensed', proleptic form––the essential capacities of the future chicken. On the other hand, the egg is really only a chicken egg if it yields what properly exists as a chicken. If it yielded a headless glob of two feet and a wing, it would not be a perfect(ed) chicken egg. Thus it is the chicken, as a dynamic existent––i.e. as a modally specific act of being––which classifies this or that egg as this or that kind of egg. Until it hatches, we do not know what "this egg" will produce––unless we already know the egg came from such and such an animal. Hence, while the egg materially constitutes the nascent chicken, the chicken formally reduces the egg's potency to exist in an actual-specific mode of being; and thus the chicken is metaphysically prior, or superior, to the egg. A chicken that produced no eggs be a perfect chicken––albeit not a perfect case of the entire species––, whereas an egg that did not yield a chicken would be so imperfect a "chicken egg" as to not qualify.

[7] Nothing, moreover, acts except as it is in act. Hence, action follows the mode of act in the agent [Nihil agit nisi secundum quod est in actu. Actio igitur consequitur modum actus in agente]. It is therefore impossible that an effect brought forth by an action be of a more excellent act than is the act of the agent. On the other hand, it is possible that the act of the effect be less perfect than the act of the efficient cause, since an action can become weakened through the effect in which it terminates. Now, in the genus of the efficient cause there is a reduction to one cause, called God [In genere autem causae efficientis fit reductio ad unam primam quae Deus dicitur], as is evident from what we have said; and from this cause, as we shall show later on, all things come. Hence, it is necessary that whatever is found in act in any thing whatever must be found in God in a more eminent way than in that thing itself [Oportet igitur quicquid actu est in quacumque re alia, inveniri in Deo multo eminentius quam sit in re illa]. But the converse is not true. God, therefore, is most perfect.

"…one cause, called God…" God as linguistic placeholder. Since God utterly surpasses what we can say about Him (cf. SCG I, 14), the best we can say about Him "by way of remotion" (ibid.) is how He corresponds to our grasp of Him by the effects of His power (cf. SCG I, 3). God is simply "that which grounds finite causation," or "that which measures all grades of being," and so on. This is why it is legitimate for Thomas in Summa theologica I, 2, 3 to end his "five ways" (as alluded to in the previous sentence) with the famous "and this everyone understands to be God," or "to which everyone gives the name of God," etc. Since "God", as a verbal entity, is not commensurate with the reality to which it refers––and thus is not a grounds for an ontological proof (cf. SCG I, 10) of His existence––, we are left with faith in His nature by Revelation and progressive adumbrations of His being by way of philosophical theology, tempered always by the experience of worship and ascesis. "God," then, is used as a cognitive pivot-point, or discursive foothold, from which we inch our way toward Him by fides quaerens intellectum. "God" is the almost comically puny yet rightly humblingly linguistic pry-bar by which we progressively gain insight into the reality of our origin and destiny in Christ, "by a certain extension of the name [God]" (cf. §10 infra).

Cf. §2 supra.

[8] In every genus, furthermore, there is something that is most perfect for that genus, acting as a measure for all other things in the genus. For each thing is shown to be more or less perfect according as it approaches more or less to the measure of its genus. Thus, white is said to be the measure among all colors, and the virtuous man among all men. Now, the measure of all beings cannot be other than God, Who is His own being [autem quod est mensura omnium entium non potest esse aliud quam Deus, qui est suum esse.]. No perfection, consequently, that is appropriate to this or that thing is lacking to Him; otherwise, He would not be the common measure of all things.

[9] This is why, when Moses asked to see the divine countenance or glory, he received this reply from the Lord: “I will show you all good,” as it is written in Exodus (33:18, 19); by which the Lord gave Moses to understand that the fullness of all goodness was in Him. Dionysius likewise says: “God does not exist in a certain way [Deus non quodam modo est existens]; He possesses, and this before all others, all being within Himself absolutely and limitlessly” [De div. nom. V, 4].

[10] We must note, however, that perfection cannot be attributed to God appropriately if we consider the signification of the name according to its origin [nominis significatio quantum ad sui originem]; for it does not seem that what is not made [factum] can be called perfect [perfectum]. But everything that comes to be is brought forth from potency to act and from non-being to being when it has been made. That is why it is rightly said to be perfect, as being completely made, at that moment when the potency is wholly reduced to act, so that it retains no non-being but has a completed being [Sed quia omne quod fit, de potentia in actum deductum est et de non esse in esse quando factum est, tunc recte perfectum esse dicitur, quasi totaliter factum, quando potentia totaliter est ad actum reducta, ut nihil de non esse retineat, sed habeat esse completum]. By a certain extension of the name [Per quandam igitur nominis extensionem], consequently, perfect is said not only of that which by way of becoming reaches a completed act, but also of that which, without any making whatever, is in complete act. It is thus that, following the words of Matthew (5:48), we say that God is perfect: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

"By a certain extension of the name [Per quandam igitur nominis extensionem]…" Cf. gloss on § 7 supra.

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