Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

CHAPTER VII. The Metaphysical Essence of God.

Thesis XXXIII. -- The metaphysical essence of God, or that Divine attribute by which the human intellect must principally distinguish Him from all created beings, is the attribute of self-existence. In other words, God is best defined by saying that He is the self-existing Being, or "He who is." Consequently, the transcendental attributes, "Truth," "Goodness," "Beauty," belong most properly to God, who is to be called the first and supreme Truth, the first and supreme Goodness, the first and supreme Beauty.

196. The essence of a created thing is that in virtue of which it is what it is (id quo res est id quod est), or that which constitutes its inmost being, and without which it could not possibly be what it is said to be. Using the term in a wider sense, we apply it not only to natural substances, but also to artificial things, to accidental determinations of substances, and even to defects. Thus we speak of the essence of a machine, of the essence of colour, of the essence of a disease, of sin, &c. But primarily the word "essence" is used of natural substances.

Under this aspect of the meaning of "essence" a distinction is to be drawn between the essence of a thing as existing and as conceived by a human itttellect.

There are in the order of existence as many essences as there are different substances; for each particular substance has its peculiar being, and is in virtue thereof one particular substance and no other. As St. Thomas expresses it: Esse proprium cujuslibet rei est tantum unum -- " The proper being of each thing is only one."{1}

If a particular individual thing could be conceived by us adequately and according to its proper being, our knowledge of its essence would be complete; in other words, we should have grasped what some among modern scholastics call the physical essence of the thing.{2}

But no substance is fully known by us according to the inmost constitution of its being. Consequently of none do we know exactly its physical essence. Such distinction as we are able to draw between one individual thing and another, is based upon a difference of accidental determinations, or individual marks (notae individuantes). Thus we tell one man from another by his figure, gait, size, countenance, voice, &c.

The essence of created things as conceived by us does not contain all, but only some of the realities of which its physical essence is made up, to wit, such as are found in other things of a similar, though not really the same, physical essence.

Conceiving for instance the essence of an individual man as a sensitive rational being, I conceive it in no way adequately as it is existing, but only inadequately according to those notes which I conceive as obtaining in all individual men. These individuals differ from one another precisely in virtue of their different physical essences, whilst at the same time they resemble one another on account of the similarity of those essences. The notes which form the basis of such a resemblance constitute the metaphysical essence of each member of the group.

The metaphysical essence is consequently an inadequate mental expression of the physical essence of a thing. That expression may be of various shades of perfection. It may express only the remote genus to which a thing belongs, or its proximate genus only, or its proximate genus together with the specific difference, by which the lowest species of which it is a member, differs from other species. Thus I express the metaphysical essence of my friend very inadequately by saying that he is a substance, more to the point by giving him the name of living being, still better by affirming that he is an animal, and best of all by deiaring that he is a rational animal.

What we have said about physical and metaphysical essence, is based upon the doctrine laid down by logicians that the universal as such has no existence, but exists only inasmuch as it is realized in particular things resembling one another. Hence it is readily understood that the metaphysical essence of a created thing is a true but imperfect mental delineation of the physical essence; and that consequently the distinction between metaphysical and physical essence, in so far as both are verified in one individual thing, is not a distinction existing as such objectively, but in thought only. Yet as it is based upon the objective similarity of physical essences, it is not a mere fiction, but founded on a real fact.

The limitations of the human intellect prevent our having any more accurate conception of the essence of a created being than is obtained by putting together those notes which constitute its lowest species. We say accordingly that we know the essence of a thing, when we are able to express the realities intelligible in each member of its lowest species. For the same reason the definition of a thing is supposed sufficiently to express its essence, when it gives a good account of its specific nature, as is done by indicating the proximate genus and the specific difference of that nature. Here then the old principle of St. Thomas is verified, that our way of speaking imitates the inadequacy of our conceptions. Although the metaphysical essence of a thing expresses its real physical essence but very imperfectly, yet it is simply called "essence." "Essence or nature," says St. Thomas, "comprises only those notes of a thing which fall under the definition of a species, as for instance humanity comprises only those notes which are contained in the definition of man; for by these man is man."{3}

"Essence is properly that which is signified by a definition. But a definition comprises only the constituents of a species, not those of an individual."{4}

"The essence of each thing is that which is signified by its definition."{5}

197. These remarks about "essence" may suffice to explain the sense in which Catholic philosophers speak of the Divine Essence. Sometimes they use the term to express what would correspond to the physical essence of creatures. We meet for instancv with passages like the following: "Although the existence of God and some of His attributes are knowable, yet His Essence cannot be known by us, so long as we are in this life." In such phrases "Essence" means the Being of God as it is in itself. Thus considered, it is hidden from our direct and immediate intuition. Our natural knowledge about it is altogether inferential, analogical, and inade~ quate. And, indeed, so it must be. Experience testifies that we are unable to grasp adequately the physical essence of even the meanest of creatures. How then shall we fathom that of the Creator?

The question then arises: Is there among the attributes of God any one attribute that may rightly be called His metaphysical Essence? This attribute, if such there be, must distinguish God from all species of finite beings after the manner in which the metaphysical essence of creatures of a certain species distinguishes them from those of another species of the same proximate genus. And as the metaphysical essence of a creature is for our intellect the root of its specific properties, so the metaphysical essence of God should furnish a foundation for our mind to construct thereupon in systematic order the rest of the Divine attributes.

To this question different answers have been given by different schoolmen. Scotus thought that the attribute of infinity was aptly called the Essence of God; Billuart held that the Divine intelligence, inasmuch as it is self-existing, deserved that name.

Neither of these two opinions satisfies the explanation of metaphysical essence given above. To human reason, unaided by revelation, infinity is not the root of all the attributes of God; for we cannot understand why God must be infinite, before we have understood that He is self-existent and one.{6} Nor again is the attribute of intelligence, considered as self-existent, the starting-point from which our intellect proceeds in order to establish the rest of the Divine attributes. Moreover, this attribute of intelligence contains more than is necessary to distinguish God from all creatures. For this purpose it is not requisite to affirm that He is a self-existent Intelligence; it is enough to say that He is self-existent; for a self-existent being must be infinitely intelligent, as our previous arguments have shown.

It is then in the attribute of self-existence alone that we find these properties which make a Divine attribvte correspond to what we call in creatures metaphysical essence. In this attribute there is expressed as well that which is (analogically) common to God and to creatures, as also that by which He is distinguished from them all. God exists really and creatures exist really. God has His proper being, or, rather is it, and so has every creature its proper being. Inasmuch therefore as "being," conceived in the highest possible abstraction, means nothing more than opposition to nothingness, we say truly: God is and the creature is. Yet the Divine being and the created being differ infinitely from one another in that the former is independent, the latter dependent; the former uncaused, the latter caused; the former has all things of itself, the latter has absolutely nothing of itself, but is itself an effect produced out of nothing according to a preconceived idea derived from the Divine essence. This infinite difference is indicated by saying, that God not only is, but is of Himself, in virtue of His own essence; in a word, He is self-existent. From this concept of self-existence we have unfolded the unity and infinity of God and established rules for determining whether any given created perfection is to be affirmed or denied of the Creator and in what sense.{7} Following these rules we found the chief negative and positive attributes of God, as expounded in the six previous chapters of this Book.

Self-existence is consequently, for a logically reasoning human intellect, not merely a distinctive excellence of the Divinity, it is the one fundamental excellence from which all others are to be explained. Therefore it deserves the name of Divine Essence.

198. The only objection worthy of consideration against this view is this, that self-existence does not sufficiently mark off the one true God from the fictitious deity of pantheists and the uncreated atoms of materialists. It would seem that monotheists, pantheists, and materialists agree with one another perfectly in that they suppose a self-existent source of all being. Monotheists believe in a self-existent personal and infinite God, who created all things other than Himself out of nothing by His omnipotent will. Pantheists, at least our modern Spinozists and Hegelians, assume a self-existent substance or idea developing into various spiritual and material things as so many modes or determinations of its proper being. Materialists imagine self-existent atoms driven by inexplicable laws to evolve out of their innermost potentiality life and sense and reason.

If then self-existence is predicated both of fictitious first causes and of the one true First Cause, how can we say that it expresses the essence of God?

To understand fully the answer to this question, the reader must bear in mind what has been proved in Book I. chap. iv. against the pantheistic and materialistic hypothesis. It has been shown there{8} that both the self-existent and self-evolving deity of pantheists, and the self-existent atoms assumed by materialists, are intrinsically absurd. Now definitions are not made to distinguish the thing defined from intrinsic absurdities, but to point out its difference from realities. The definition of God must therefore contain that by which God is clearly and primarily distinguished from all real things that are not God. And from all these He is clearly and primarily distinguished by the definition: God is the self-existent being. If, therefore, according to the common way of speaking, the essence of a thing is the import of its definition, self-existence must be the essence of God.

The truth underlying the difficulty which we have solved amounts to this, that the phrase, God is the self-existing being, is not a definition, which in an age like our own should be put forward without proper explanation. Yet this does not prevent it from being a good definition in itself. All definitions need explaining according to the circumstances of those to whom they are propounded.

199. Comparing the definition given with the name under which God revealed Himself to Moses: "I am who am. . . . Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you;"{9} we see that the phrase, He who is, is identical in meaning with the self-existent being. The term, " self-existent being," denotes that actual essence which alone is incapable of being rightly conceived otherwise than as existing in itself. Every other actual essence can be conceived as not existing in itself, as a mere term of the Divine intellect, a purely possible imitation of the Divine essence. But this is exactly what is meant by the Scriptural phrase, "He who is." God is accurately defified to be the self-existent being, ipsum esse in se subsistens,{10} and He is equally well defined, He who is, Qui est.

For the appropriateness of this name revealed by God Himself, St. Thomas{11} gives three reasons.

(1) This name suggests to us that God is not a being made according to a preconceived eternal idea, but a necessarily existing essence."{12}

(2) This name, as it is of the widest universality, does not, like other names, such as Mighty, Wise, Just, connote a certain class or classes of beings. Consequently, when used with emphasis as the proper name of the Divine Being, it suggests to us that that Being is not limited in His perfection to the reality conceivable in one or more genera of finite things, but unites in Himself eminently whatever outside Himself can be conceived as being, in opposition to privation or defect."{13} (3) The name He who is, as it contains the substantive verb to be in the present tense, connotes the essence of God to be unalterable eternity, an unchangeable standing "now" in the midst of transitory created existences.{14}

200. The metaphysical essence of God naturally suggests His three transcendental attributes: Truth, Goodness, Beauty. We call them transcendental, because they transcend all the genera and classification of substances inasmuch as they are not properties of a certain class or classes of substances, but are, to a certain extent, verified in every creature. They express the perfection of all being whatsoever, as bearing certain relations to intellect and will.{15}

Every being, in so far as it is conceivable as a positive reality, is true; in so far as its perfection is matter of approval or desire to a rational will, it is good; and in so far as its perfection involves an excellence which the intellect cannot contemplate without the will, if duly disposed, being moved to a certain complacency and delight, it is beautiful.{16}

As then God unites in His self-existent essence all conceivable perfections, He must stand in such a relation to every intellect and will as to deserve in a most proper sense the denominations of Truth, Goodness, Beauty. A short explanation and proof of this will aptly conclude this chapter.

201. (1) Truth. We must distinguish objective truth, intellectual truth, moral truth. A thing is objectively or essentially true, in so far as it deserves the name of thing, and is not a mere chimera. Every conceivable possible or actual substance is consequently objectively true. Besides this properly transcendental meaning of truth, there are two other senses in which truth is found only in rational beings. A rational being apprehending and judging a thing in harmony with its possible or actual existence, and not confounding the one with the other, has formal or intellectual truth; its intellect is formally or intellectually true. Intellectual or formal truth is the conformity of the knowing intellect with the object known (adaequatio intellectus cum re).

A rational being when it addresses itself to other minds by speech or equivalent modes of expression, is said to be truthful or not according as it manifests or not what it takes to be objective truth. This sort of truth or truthfulness is generally called moral truth. The speaker is under a moral obligation to be truthful in this manner.

In each of these three meanings truth is proper to God without limit. He is infinitely perfect objective Truth; for He is not only a really conceivable Being, but He is the only Being the acknowledgment of whom explains all realities, as He is the principle of all possible being and the First Cause of all actual being outside Himself. Being possessed of an infinite intellect, which is really identical with His essence, He is the first intellectual Truth, not liable either to the shadows of ignorance or to the depravations of error. Moreover it has been proved in our exposition of His moral attributes that His veracity and faithfulness are absolutely perfect. Each revelation He makes is therefore morally true; and as the manifestation of infinitely perfect wisdomr altogether infallible.

202. (2) Goodness is distinguished as absolute and relative. Absolute goodness is the perfection. of a being, in so far as it cannot be considered in itself without eliciting the approval of a rational and righteous will. Relative goodness is the perfection of a being, considered in its aptitude to satisfy the natural tendencies of other beings.

From these definitions it appears easily that God is supreme goodness both absolute and relative. He is supreme absolute goodness by virtue of His infinitely perfect essence, which contains without any defect everything worthy of approval and love. He is supreme relative goodness, for, as we shall see in Book III., no creature can reach the goal of its existence unless it be preserved and directed by Him, who alone is the First Cause of its goodness; and, as we see in Ethics, no rational being can find the happiness for which it has been made, save through union with Him by perfect knowledge and love. Nay, just as being, when taken as a necessary attribute, cannot be predicated except of God, so goodness is predicable with absolute necessity of God alone. In this sense our Saviour said, "None is good but God alone."{17}

St. Thomas gives a fuller explanation of this truth in the following words: "God alone is good by His essence. For the goodness of everything is based upon its perfection. Now there is a threefold perfection of a thing to be distinguished. The first is that which constitutes its existence. To this a second perfection is added, in that the thing existing receives some accidental qualities necessary for its perfect operation. Its third perfection consists in attaining something outside itself as the end of its existence. . . . But of these three perfections none belongs to any creature in virtue of its essence. God alone possesses them in this way. Indeed of Him alone can it be said that His essence is His existence; He alone cannot receive accidental qualities, but possesses as identical with His essence what is predicated of others accidentally -- for instance, power, wisdom, &c. He also has no end to reach, but is Himself the end of all things. It is consequently evident that God alone is essentially perfect in every respect, which is tantamount to saying that He alone is good in virtue of His essence."{18}

In the following article the Angelic Doctor explains thus the relation of God's goodness to that of creatures: "Everything is said to be good in virtue of the Divine goodness, inasmuch as this is the prototype, the first efficient cause and last end of whatever is good. Nevertheless everything is good in itself, in so far as it is a sort of copy of the Divine Being, from the resemblance to which it is formally denominated good. Thus under one aspect there is one goodness of all, under another aspect there are, if we may say so, many goodnesses."{19}

Note. -- Goodness in a more limited sense signifies reasonable benevolence. That this must be predicated of God in regard to His rational creatures we have proved when treating of the moral attributes.{20}

203. (3) Beauty is the inseparable companion of perfect goodness. By the beautiful we mean that which, when intellectually perceived, excites by its mere contemplation feelings of satisfaction and delight in the well-disposed will. This idea is happily expressed in the old saying, Pulcrum est splendor veri -- "Beauty is the lustre of truth."

The description given applies equally to a beautiful edifice, a beautiful statue, a beautiful sermon, a beautiful saying, beautiful music, and to a beautiful idea, a beautiful way of acting, a beautiful character, a beautiful soul.{21} As our intellect in this life can have no direct intuition but of sensible things, it is impossible for mortal men to contemplate beauty intuitively unless it appears under sensible forms. Yet its essence is in no way sensible, but purely intellectual. The most essential note of beauty in corporeal things is proportion of parts to a whole and to one another. Now proportion as such is evidently an object not of sense-perception, but of intellectual apprehension, whether it exists in the region of colour or of sound or of ideas, in the harmony of the animal body, limb with limb, or in the fitness of moral action to the rational nature of the doer. It follows from this that a brute beast, although it may have an attraction for bright colour, has no true taste for beauty; and that the ability of a man to judge of its presence or absence increases with the power of his intellect to strike a comparison between phenomenal appearance and ideal type. Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent,{22} says St. Thomas. "Things beautiful are those of which the mental intuition causes delight." The more comprehensive the mental intuition of the beautiful, the greater is the spiritual delight produced by it. Things of which we can have no direct intuition are to be judged beautiful if it can be shown that on the supposition of immediate contemplation spiritual satisfaction would naturally arise. This being so, God must be infinitely beautiful. In the section on Divine Life{23} we draw the conclusion that the comprehensive knowledge which God has of this His perfection necessarily involves in Him a state of infinite happiness. How much more must this infinite perfection of the Creator suffice to make finite minds happy if they are allowed to behold it. As God is the final end of man, even the knowledge of Him as He is reflected in the mirror of creatures would, as is proved in Ethics, become so perfect in our final state as to cause in us a perfect natural happiness, supposing us not to have been raised to a supernatural state, nor ever to have forfeited the attainment of our last end by sin not pardoned. Indeed, the millions of infants who die without baptism every year will rejoice throughout eternity over the Divine beauty as it is reflected in creation. Yet their knowledge of God and the happiness resulting from it cannot be compared with what Christian faith leads us to live and to long for. By this faith we are certain that all those who believe in the Word made Flesh with that living faith which works through charity are children of God by adoption. As such they are destined to see God face to face, and to find a torrent of delight in the vision of His eternal and unchangeable beauty. The hope of coming to the enjoyment of this beauty of beauties has guided and strengthened the Apostles and martyrs of all ages in the midst of persecutions and torments. They reckoned with St. Paul "that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us,"{24} when we shall see "the Blessed and only Mighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who only hath immortality, and inhabiteth light inaccessible"{25} to the intuition of mortals. The same hope forms even at the end of our materialistic nineteenth century an inexhaustible source of consolation for millions of Christians, who experience in the practice of Christianity the fulfilment of the Divine promise: "He shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God."{26} It is they who truly can rejoice in the thought of their Creator even here on earth, whilst His essence is not seen by them. If all around seems dark, in Him they find light. If everything else be lost, in Him they recover it abundantly. "Wearied with the never-ceasing din of the world, wearied with the monotonous bustle of commerce and of trade, wearied with the hollow pretensions, the duplicity, the jealousies of political parties, wearied yet more with the trivialities of social intercourse, and with the solemn littlenesses of individual self-assertion as it jostles its way among the crowd to gain its own wretched hillock -- what a joy and consolation to pass by contemplation (if only for an hour) into the bosom of our ever-tranquil God."{27} It was during an hour of this sublimest of all contemplations that St. Augustine exclaimed "Too late I loved Thee, O Thou, Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved Thee."{28}

{1} Contra Gentes, i. c. 42.

{2} Cf. Grand-Claude, Breviariam Philosophiae, ii. n. 355. What here is called physical essence corresponds in natural substances to the esse of St. Thomas as distinguished from essentia.

{3} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. 1a. q. 3. art. 3. in corp. "Essentiae vel natura comprehendit illa tantum quae cadunt in definitione speciei; sicut humanitas comprehendit in se ea quae cadunt in definitione hominis; his enim homo est homo."

{4} "Essentia proprie est id quod significatur per definitionem. Definitio autem complectitur speciei principia, non autem principia individualia." (St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. i. 29. 2. ad 3.)

{5} "Essentia enim uniuscujusque rei est illud quod significat definitio ejus." (Compendium Theol. c. x.)

{6} Cf. Bk. I. p. 100.

{7} See the rules laid down in Bk. I. pp. 101, seq.

{8} Bk. I. c. iv. § 78, seq. and §§ 93, seq.

{9} Exodus iii. 14.

{10} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 4. art. ii. in Corp.

{11} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 13. art. xi. in Corp.

{12} "Primum quidem propter sui significationem. Non enim significat formam aliquam sed ipsum esse," &c.

{13} "Secundo propter ejus universalitatem . . . Quolibet enim alio nomine determinatur aliquis modus substantiae rei; sed hoc nomen Qui est nullum modum essendi determinat, sed se habet indeterminate ad omnes, et ideo nominat ipsum pelagus substantiae infinitum."

{14} "Tertio vero ex ejus consignificatione. . . . Significat enim esse in praesenti; et hoc maxime proprie de Deo dicitur, cujus esse non novit praeteritum vel futurum."

{15} This is the original meaning of the word "transcendental," as it was employed for centuries by scholastic philosophers. Since Kant it has been employed with another meaning in quite a different connection. According to Kant, the transcendental is what surpasses our experience.

{16} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 5. art. 4. ad 1.

{17} St. Luke xviii. 19.

{18} "Solus Deus est bonus per suam essentiam. Unumquodque enim dicitur bonum secundum quod est perfectum. Perfectio autem alicujus rei triplex est. Prima quidem, secundum quod in suo esse constituitur; secunda vero, prout ei aliqua accidentia superadduntur ad suam perfectam operationem necessaria; tertia vero perfectio alicujus est per hoc quod aliquid aliud attingit sicut finem. . . . Haec autem triplex perfectio nulli creato competit secundum suam essentiam, sed soli Deo, cujus solius essentia est suum esse, et cui non adveniunt aliqua accidentia; sed quae de aliis dicuntur accidentaliter, sibi conveniunt essentialiter, ut esse potentem, sapientem, et alia hujusmodi; ipse etiam ad nihil aliud ordinatur sicut ad finem, sed ipse est ultimus finis omnium rerum. Unde manifestum est quod solus Deus habet omnimodam perfectionem secundum suam essentiam; et ideo ipse solus est bonus per suam essentiam." (St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. i. q. 6. a. 3.)

{19} Unumquodque dicitur bonum bonitate divina, sicut prima principia exemplari, effectivo et finali totius bonitatis. Nihilominus tamen unumquodque dicitur bonum similitudine divinae bonitatis sibi inhaerente, qum est formaliter sua bonitas, denominans ipsum. Et sic est bonitas una omnium, et etiam multae bonitates." (Ibid. a. 4. c. fin.)

{20} Cf. Bk. II. c. v. sect. 2, § 186.

{21} Cf. Goethe's Aus den Bekenntnissen einen schönen Seele.

{22} St.Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 5. art. 4. ad 1. From the context it appears clearly that it is not the intention of the Angelic Doctor to confine the province of the beautiful to things visible by the eyes of the body. He says expressly, "Pulcrum et bonum in subjecto quidem sunt idem . . . sed ratione differunt."

{23} Bk. II. c. v. sect. 3, § 191.

{24} Romans viii. 18.

{25} 1 Tim. vi. 15, 16.

{26} St. John vii. 17.

{27} Harper, Sermon on Spiritual Life, p. 1.

{28} "Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi." (St. Aug. Conf. X. 27.)

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