The difficulty we have in reasoning about God is not so much from our failure to understand the proofs or arguments as it is from our attachment to imaginable things. Our objections to divine things and religion are less from intellectual problems and more from our loving immersion in the things of this world.

The stories of those who leave the faith or deny the reality of divine things are usually stories of intellectual problems and brainy objections. To read such stories leaves me with the overwhelming suspicion that the most important details are being left out. This does not mean in any way that our disposition toward God is not an intellectual matter- rather, it is to say that the most relevant reasons we give for our disposition toward God are the ones which take into account our attachment to the things of this world.

The Fourth Way, Part I

Many misunderstandings about the Fourth Way can be resolved if we take the words of the proof very seriously.

The fourth way is taken from the gradations that are found in things.

The proof is based on gradations found in things. Our focus on the “gradations” cannot distract us from the things in which we find them. One man might be more or less musical, but “musical” is not the same thing as “a man”; one rose might be more or less beautiful, but beauty is not the same thing as a rose.  The proof therefore starts with a discussion of composites of a form in a subject, or generally of composites of act and potency. If you don’t understand this sort of composition, stop reading the proof immediately, or at least don’t claim to understand what follows.

For there is found in things a more and less good, true, noble, and other such like things.   

St. Thomas is restricting the notion of composition to the composition of good with a good thing; truth with a true thing; nobility with a noble person, and other such like compositions. Given this restriction, we either have to

a.) State exactly the class of things that St. Thomas is speaking of, and then speak only of that class of things as such, or

b.) Explicitly limit ourselves to a discussion of good, true, noble, and heat, which are the only “such like” things that St. Thomas mentions.

The first option is difficult. St. Thomas seems to have in mind positive qualities (in the broad sense of quality, not the one limited to a genus) which are limited by the subjects in which the qualities are found. St. Thomas’s example of “heat ” is perfectly chosen here, because the limit of how hot something can be is the combustion point or flash point of the thing in which the heat is. Wood can’t keep getting hotter forever- at some point it bursts into flame. The same is true of paper and other flammable things. So too with goodness- one man might become more or less good, but his human nature places a limit on how good he can become. 

More generally, the class of things the Fourth Way speaks of is act so far as it is limited by potency.  We need to be even more restrictive than this, however, for by the very nature of what St. Thomas is doing here he is limiting himself to a consideration of the qualities which belong to the meaning of the term “God”: goodness, truth, wisdom, love, justice, power, etc. If St. Thomas were not implicitly making this restriction, he would not be proving the existence of God. The example of heat has a likeness to these things, but it is not formally what the proof is considering, since the word “God” doesn’t mean the being with the greatest amount of heat.

The first and the second premise, if put very generally and abstractly (which makes it dreadfully clunky and devoid of its original thomistic simplicity and grandeur), would read like so:

The fourth way is taken from the degrees of act that we find in subjects or potencies. For subjects have more or less of some actuality in such a way that the subject is a limit of the act. Among such composites, some have an act that is a part of the meaning of the term “God”. This is especially the case with goodness, truth, nobility, and other such like things- like wisdom and power, for all who speak of God (whether they know him or not) speak of some intelligent, good, lofty, powerful being.

St. Thomas continues:

But more and less in diverse things is said according to the diverse ways in which they approach toward something (ad aliquid) that is most.

The bolded section is the one which causes the most difficulties when overlooked. St. Thomas is saying that there are many ways of approaching toward some maximum. At this point in the proof, we are free to think that the maximum might be reached in some cases, in others not; the maximum might exist actually in some cases, in others not; the maximum might be the term of a finite series in some cases, in others not. In some cases, the maximum is simply contradictory (This is the case with privations. No evil can be such that it wholly eliminates the good of the subject.)  

If I only had a nickel for every time that someone objected to the Fourth Way by saying that there is more than one way of approaching toward some maximum! “St. Thomas is wrong here, sometimes the maximum is impossible, contradictory, at an infinite distance, only possible, etc. This is not even an objection, but an integral part of the Fourth Way! Of course there are many ways of approaching toward a maximum. You might cite St. Thomas as an authority to the opinion.

 Est igitur aliquid quod est verissimum, et optimum, et nobilissimum, et per consequens maxime ens, nam quae sunt maxime vera, sunt maxime entia, ut dicitur II Metaphys

There is therefore something that is most true, best, and loftiest, and as a consequence [is] most of all existent, for the things that are most of all true are most of all existent, as is said in II Metaphysics.

There is something most true in one way or another. But Metaphysics Book II tells us that as something is true, so it exists, (or “has ens“, but St. Thomas is pretty clear that “ens” is taken from the act of essence, and this act is existence). I’m often amused by the Fourth Way being called “the most Platonic” of the proofs, when in fact its central middle term is taken from the second book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Without this argument that draws a bond between truth and existence, we only know that what is more an less true approaches some most, not that some most true being actually exists.  

But if St. Thomas has shown that God exists, why does he not say so? Why does the proof keep going? There are three reasons:

1.) St. Thomas does not so much look at the existence of “ens” as he looks at its universality. The fourth Way will conclude to God as absolutely over all being as such.

2.) St. Thomas does not want to see God as a “being” but as the source of being. There is no flatland of being that is shared between God and creatures.

3.) As St. Thomas proves in the article previous to the Five Ways, we come to God through his causality of creatures, and so St. Thomas must invoke causality explicitly in his proof, which he has not done yet. 

More Later.

Notes and questions on causality

-Can we call causality a kind of unity which consists in imparting something to another? There is a real unity among causes and effects, which follows upon their being acts and potencies, respectively (without potency, the idea of cause is lost). 

Causality requires both unity and diversity. Causality is union (lack of division) to another which also requires real division from the other along the lines of cause and effect. Is there a paradox in causality like the paradox in the interior common sensitive power?   

-A cause is a kind of order, and it consists in being “prior” or “before”. Taken in this way, however, we might reduce causality to mere division or distinction, which will end up putting us at risk of forgeting the unity that causality involves- sc. the unity of cause and effect.

-The cause informs, and is the form informing. Better yet, the “form informing” or “informing thing has two senses. To be in as an agent is not to be in as a form. The force in the ball is in one sense the force in the ball being thrown, in another sense not. The two forces are essentially different- for the force in the hand is a living thing, that in the ball is not.

Is “force” a category that conceals more than it reveals? Is it essentially metrical in such a way as when I speak of the force in my hand and the force in the ball I am speaking of essentially different realities?

Another example of the important distinction between descriptive and restrictive relative clauses

St. Thomas asked one of his scribes to write:

Id enim quod praecipue in rebus creatis Deus intendit est bonum quod consistit in assimilatione ad Deum

(ST I Q. 50 art 1)

do we translate this as:

What God chiefly intended in creating things is the good which consists in assimilation to God.


What God chiefly intended in creating things is the good, which consists in assimilation to God.

What is St. Thomas saying about goodness here? In the first, the relative clause starting with “which” is restricting the idea of good. The second says that goodness as such is nothing other than a certain assimilation to the divine life.

A third possibility (which is probably the best reading on the basis of an isolated text) – St. Thomas knew that the statement admitted of two meanings, and he intended both.

“strange gods”

The First Commandment of the Decalogue requires that one have “no other gods (acher elohiym)”. Jerome translated “other” as “alienus” as opposed to “alius“, giving it the meaning “strange gods”. I haven’t looked into why Jerome did this, since there is a very commonly used Hebrew adjective “naykar” which means “strange” or “foreign”. At the very least, Scripture makes clear that the “acher gods” are synonymous the “naykar gods” in many places (Gen. 35; Jos 24:20) and so at the worst, Jerome is simply using a synonym.  

(A scripture scholar told me that the Hebrew text I was quoting from was probably the 12th century “Codex 1”, which is not the critical edition of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jerome might well have had access to a text that said naykar- or even several such texts)   

The first sense of a “strange god” is the god of another nation. The true God, therefore, is of our own nation, i.e. our true nation is the one over which God rules. This is why St. Thomas did not speak of going to “heaven” (which for him was a series of crystal spheres) but of going to the “patria” (as in the familiar last line of the “Tantum Ergo”- qui vitam sine termino nobis donet in patria. “may [God] give us life without end in the homeland/ fatherland/land of our ancestors”.)

Meister Eckhart had a very profound reading of having no “strange gods”. To him, nothing strange is God- for God is subsistent existence, and existence is neither strange nor alien to anything; God is infinite, and nothing lies outside of the infinite. His most moving reason, however, is that God is innermost in all things, and what is innermost can never be alien or strange to anything.

Matter part III

Where exactly is something when it is changing place?  We can only answer this by creating a term of the motion in our mind and placing the mobile at rest in it- e.g. at time T it is at point X. In doing this, the motion vanishes from our consideration. The same is true whe we try to speak of the state of something changing color, size, etc.

Motion requires that we introduce some source of unintelligibly. This principle both falls short of being a determinate or partivular thing and at the same time rises above sheer non-existence. Thisa principle has a place, but not a determinate place; it has a color, but not a determinate color; it has a size or shape, but not a determinate shape. We might fool ourselves into thinking there is no scandal in this, for we often use concepts like “animal” which contain every particular animal indeterminately. But when we say that the mobile has a place but not a determinate place, we are not saying the mobile has place in a general or abstract way. The scandal is that a particular thing, as particular, can both have some X, but not have a particular determinate X. This is precisely the scandal of motion, which forces us to introduce composition into the mobile things around us. There is a compenetration in them of the intelligible and the unintelligible.

The “Malaise Speech” and the limits of government

President Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech has been reconsidered and praised by two prominent conservative authors (ht. Mark Shea) Both authors claim that the speech was exactly what the country needed to hear, but was demonized and exploited by Reagan, who they portray as a demagogue worse than Cleon.

I agree with the broad sketch of the facts, but not with the conclusions. Carter’s speech- a sober and reasonable call to turn away from the vanity of carnal consumption- was exactly what the country needed to hear. Reagan, moreover, did make his presidency off of telling the country that he “utterly rejected” Carter’s way of thinking. Nevertheless, the ultimate lesson of the Carter/Reagan debate is not that a good message can be distorted by a (supposed) demagogue, but rather that government leaders are incapable of calling the people to repentance. People do not invest the authority to call for repentance in governmental leaders any more than they invest it in corporate CEO’s or military generals. A president, CEO, or General might very well call on us to turn from our vices, but as soon as he starts imagining that there is something in the power of his office that allows him to tell us to do so, the response will only be anger and rejection. And isn’t this anger reasonable? If a CEO were to charge onto a battlefield and start giving orders to the general, he would be promptly dragged away and detained regardless of whether his orders were the right thing to do. Carter’s call was correct, but he had no authority to make it.

Carter’s speech exposes one of the most severe limitations on governmental power- it cannot call upon people to turn away from their vices. Since human vices are the ultimate root of social ills, government by its very nature cannot speak to the ultimate root of social ills. Government’s role in solving the ultimate ills of its people is therefore an essentially a secondary, subordinate, and dependent role.

Matter part II

Matter is first of all the ground or foundation of being in motion. It is that which is somehow present at both the terms of change, and throughout the change itself. While matter is the ultimate ground of change, it is not all that change requires as passive.

Motion is essentially going from this to that, regardless of whether the mobile happened to be at rest in the this or the that. A mobile is always between two terms and never at a term. Some part of the mobile might reach the term before the whole does, but we can never have the whole at the term and also in motion. It follows from this that motion requires not only matter, but extension- for if we deny all parts to some mobile, then at any point in its motion it would be at that term as a whole. The whole mobile, in other words, would be both at rest and at motion at one and the same time and in the same respect.

Another way to see the argument is that a term is a limit between two states, and a limit as such is common to the two :this is where one ends and another begins. But any partless thing would have to be at that limit as a whole, and so the whole thing would be at once in a contradictory states. The whole thing would be in motion and not.  

While matter is the foundation of motion, in order to be actually in motion matter must rise to the concrete existence of extended quantity. While matter is not precisely the same thing as extension, wherever there is matter, there must be extension, and vice versa.

Matter part I

Matter is first of all what lasts throughout a change or motion. It undergoes the change and is present at the end of it. It is, for example, what remains after we burn something or generate something or crush something or smash it in a particle accelerator. Matter is inseparable from change and motion. But motion or change is not some subsistent thing that matter takes part in- the matter itself is the foundation of the change- whether change in place or color or time or being.

The continual difficulty with understanding matter is that we are always infusing it with more being than it actually has. We continually are making it a “this” or a “that”, but matter is what goes from this tothat and is therefore neither. It is true that matter is at the term of a change, but as matter it has an order to an indefinite number of other things. If, per impossibile, we could look at something and fully see its matter, we would see it in infinite places, at an indefinite number of times, as a multitude of substances, and with innumerable and incompatible accidents, properties, and futures. This example is deceptive since if we could “see” the matter of something we would not even see it– only a incompatible and multitude which would be impossible to unify. The unity of a thing- even the unity of what we might call  “matter” is not from matter. Any concrete existence we give to matter must be eventually dissolved- as the newer theories of matter (over the last 100 years or so) have done.

Because matter cannot have any concrete existence, it cannot be isolated as a unique, separate thing. Again, matter is not an determinate “this” or a “that”.

The two possible dispositions of the heart.

-What is good is desirable, but to desire something is to see it as somehow fulfilling.

-To be fulfilled by some other involves assimilating that other thing to oneself.

-Sometimes, the process of assimilating the other good destroys the other. The good that the wolf sees in a rabbit involves the destruction of the rabbit. The nutrient benefit that the plant takes from the soil requires that the soil be deprived of nutrients.  

-Sometimes the the process of assimilating the good does not destroy the other, but nevertheless the good is wholly exhausted in the one who takes it in. The same pleasure or delight that I take in eating or any other activity cannot be shared, even though it is certainly possible for several people to experience pleasure simultaneously.

-Sometimes the process of assimilating the other neither destroys it, nor does it create something that is wholly exhausted by being contained in an individual. Jokes do not become less funny when a crowd hears them; knowledge does not become less true when many people know something; the goods of a community or nation do not become weaker because they are shared by all citizens; the gifts of God do not become diluted by being poured out on the Church.

-Note that there is a certain paradox in the last kind of good. On the one hand, it is a good and therefore is assimilated to the one who loves it, and becomes his own perfection; on the other hand the good is neither destroyed nor is it wholly contained within the one desiring it, but exceeds even his own ability to contain. This last kind of good cannot be understood in a material way, for no material container can contain more than itself, but the very nature of this last kind of good consists in containing more than oneself.

-Within every man, there is a certain innermost part which has an ultimate disposition towards a certain kind of good. This innermost part is called “the heart”.

-The heart must ultimately orient itself towards goods which can be understood in a material way, or towards goods that cannot be understood in a material way. There is no third kind of good. Among the first kind of goods, the highest and most desirable are the highest carnal pleasures; among the latter kind of goods, the highest is God himself.

« Older entries Newer entries »