Divine simplicity (2), Translating Analytic Philosophy into Scholasticism

(What follows is an application of the logical divisions of perseity mentioned in the previous post)

Analytic philosophy translates the idea of divine simplicity into claims like God is identical to his properties. There is no consistent account of what a property or an identity is in Analytic thought, but I want to explain what this claim would mean in the Scholastic-Patristic tradition, where by “Scholastic” I mean not just Thomism but the whole tradition from Aristotle and by “Patristic” I mean the Platonic tradition of the early church (Augustine is quoted below).

The “properties”* that Scholastics are interested in when talking about simplicity are positive predicates not said relative to creatures. By “positive predicate” we mean any “God is ______” as opposed to “God is not _______”, and by “not said relative to creatures” we set aside predicates like “creator” or “Lord” or “the goal of human life” that all assume the existence of things other than God.** Predicates like “the highest good” or “supremely wise” are ambiguous. If the “height” in question is seen as relative to creatures it is set aside, but if it is seen as highest possible in the sense of maximal perseity, then this is exactly what the Scholastics were looking for.

The way in which God is “identical to his properties” is because they are said of him per se and first, i.e. in a type (3) way mentioned in the last post. Goodness is said of creatures either in a type (1) or type (2) sense, but is said only of God in a type (3) sense. Now type (3) claims are bona fide identities, and so we have a genuine sense of God being identical to his properties. This is why Christ could say that “None is good but God alone” without contradicting the clear Scriptural belief that creatures are good. God alone is good like only surfaces that reflect all wavelengths of light are white.

Because (3)’s are convertible, we seem to hit a snag. If God alone is good, then whatever is good is God. But ice cream and puppies and birthdays are good. So how does divine simplicity avoid concluding that birthdays are God?

The solution is clear from the nature of the division just made since (3)’s are the sole possessors of their predicates in the sense of being that in virtue of which (2)’s and (1)’s have the predicate whenever they do. This allows for a sense in which the predicate can be had even necessarily and by the nature of the thing without it being had in a type (3) way. Just as snow is essentially white without being what white is, creation is essentially good without being what goodness is, or, as Christ would put it, creation is essentially and by nature good without being “what is good alone”.

For all that safe distinction drawing there is still a radical sense in which the very goodness in creatures, if we could somehow distill it out and see it in itself, would be God. Augustine says this flat out in De trinitate VIII. 3

This thing is good and that good, but take away this and that, and regard good itself if you can, so will you see God, not good by a good that is other than Himself, but the good of all good. For in all these good things, whether those which I have mentioned, or any else that are to be discerned or thought, we could not say that one was better than another, when we judge truly, unless a conception of the good itself had been impressed upon us, such that according to it we might both approve some things as good, and prefer one good to another. So God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself. For the good that must be sought for the soul is not one above which it is to fly by judging, but to which it is to cleave by loving; and what can this be except God? Not a good mind, or a good angel, or the good heaven, but the good good.

The Platonism here (“good itself”, “the good good”) can be caricatured and straw-manned, but if we stick to the way in which “the X itself’ means “an X predicate said per se and first” then the account is an application of a principle that is central to any systematic inquiry.

This is true of God’s existence too: God exists and esse est Deus.*** This could only lead to pantheism if we forget that all positive predicates said of God are transcendental and not categorical, i.e. they are all either modes of being or things like intelligence and love that relate to being or existence as such. While it is true that the type (3) predicates in the examples we gave are in the same category as type (2), and are even properties of them, this does not follow from their being type (3) predicates. God being the reason all things are good does not place him in the same category as created goods because goodness as such is not limited to a category. Ditto for existence, intelligence, wisdom, etc.


*Sometimes Analytic philosophers treat the word “parts” as the same as “properties”. Obviously, if by “a part” you mean “positive predicate said of God not relative to creatures” then the Scholastic is denying parts to God in this sense. That said, the word “parts” is ambiguous. If by “parts” you mean physical parts then this will be one aspect of divine simplicity, but not the one that tends to be controversial, and not the one that gets into trouble by implying some kind of property.

**Notice that all relation to creatures has been set aside, so there can be no question of how divine simplicity is compatible with God’s free choice to create. All predicates of this sort are set aside from the beginning.

***Meister Eckhart would later argue in a straight derivation from Thomistic principles concerning the doctrine of simplicity.

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