The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter VI: Scholastic Natural Theology


The very title, Natural Theology, suggests that some other kind of theology exists. And, indeed, Scholastics have always carefully distinguished between natural and revealed theology. This is one of the points which unmistakably separate the Scholastic system from the philosophy of the Hegelian school. According to Hegel and his disciples, no truth lies beyond the reach of the human mind. God is an object of experience as clearly present to our natural faculties as tables and chairs. An adequate knowledge of the Absolute is thus perfectly possible, and theology becomes a branch of philosophy.

St. Thomas and the Scholastics, on the other hand, believe that the Divine Essence cannot be known by our finite minds. Our natural faculties may lead us to the knowledge of God's existence; they may even enable us to reach a true knowledge of his nature; but, as this knowledge is not reached by direct intuition, but by the consideration of the finite world in which we live, it cannot be adequate.

As the imperfect knowledge of God our mind can attain may be supplemented by the Divine Revelation, the science of theology is evidently twofold: Natural Theology deals with the knowledge of God human reason can attain by its natural forces; Revealed Theology deals with the knowledge of God which lies beyond the reach of our natural faculties and is attainable only by revelation. The philosopher is thus concerned with natural theology; be has nothing to do with revealed theology.


All possible proofs of the existence of the Divine Mind may be classified under three heads:

1. The a priori proof, derived from the very concept of God, and usually known as ontological argument.

2. The a posteriori proofs, by which we ascend from the knowledge of the finite world to the knowledge of the infinite.

3. The moral arguments, drawn from the nature and aspirations of the human heart; also, from the common consent of mankind.

The ontological argument has never enjoyed much favor among Scholastic philosophers. First proposed by Anselm of Canterbury and at once assailed by Gaunilo the monk, it has been discussed and finally rejected by Thomas Aquinas. Accepted in a slightly modified form by Descartes and Leibniz, it has been rejected again by Kant and readmitted by Hegel, who believed that since its first formulation until the time of Kant it had been unanimously accepted among philosophers.[1]

These repeated attempts to rehabilitate the fallen argument have been a decided failure. Neo-Scholastics to-day regard the ontological proof as worthless, and, in so doing, are perfectly justified. The weak point of the argument has been clearly pointed out by Thomas Aquinas.[2] Anselm's reasoning unduly passes from the ideal to the real order. The conception of the most perfect being must include the element of existence, as Anselm believed; but this existence must be ideal, limited to the concept of our mind, and cannot legitimately be predicated of the objective world.

The argument from the moral law has been repeatedly formulated and defended. All men, it has been said, believe in the existence of a moral law. They all regard some actions as praiseworthy, others as condemnable. Now, without God, a moral law would be an absurdity, because the very notion of a law implies the existence of a legislator, endowed with a sufficient authority to impose it and give it a sanction.

Is this line of reasoning defensible? We are not inclined to believe it. The fact that some acts are universally praised as good, while others are universally condemned, may be sufficiently explained from the nature of the acts themselves without any necessity of a recourse to a supreme Lawgiver. There is no doubt that if God exists, he is the foundation and the source of all truth, and therefore the ultimate ground of the moral law; but, as his existence is precisely in question, it is from the human acts themselves that we must start. As no mathematician needs to postulate a Divine Being in order to understand that the sum of the angles of a triangle has been universally believed to be equal to two right angles, so the moralist needs no God to account for the fact that incontinence is universally regarded as degrading and courage as praiseworthy. The very results of our acts give us the clue as to their moral character. Scholastic philosophers are thus right when they refuse to assign to the argument from the moral law a primary importance,.

Another moral argument, altogether different from the one we have presently considered, is derived from the common consent of mankind. Like all moral arguments, the argument from universal consent is regarded by Scholastics as of secondary importance. It is, however, defended as legitimate, and invariably finds a place in treatises on natural theology. The fact itself that all peoples have believed in a Supreme Being seems to admit of no reasonable doubt. To Spencer's objection that the savage's concepts of God have been evolved out of ghosts or ancestor-spirits, and, with the evolution of human ideas, have gradually acquired a nobler form, Scholastics answer that the conceptions of God found among savage or semi-civilized nations are corruptions of a purer and older form, and that the tendency of mankind is thus to fall away from a primitive monotheism.[3] Whether this theory can be maintained nowadays, I will not here discuss. I will limit myself to remarking that it is far from rendering the argument from universal consent sent unassailable. This argument even becomes valueless if we take into account the fact, attested by the Biblical relation and generally admitted to-day by natural science, that all men have come from a single stem. The force of the argument lies in the fact that a notion of the Deity is found among all tribes of men, and must thus be due to human nature itself, inasmuch as an error or a fraud might have crept among one particular nation, but could not possess a universal character. Now if all men had a common origin, if there was at the beginning a single family, it may be perfectly well supposed that an erroneous notion has been accepted by this family, and, transmitted to its posterity, has become a universal error of the human race.

The arguments we have described as a posteriori are especially insisted upon by St. Thomas and his modern followers. These arguments invariably start from the knowledge of the world given in experience, and rise to the knowledge of God. They assume different forms, which may be reduced to the two we shall presently expose.

The first is sometimes described as "physical argument." It starts from the order of the world, the perfect adaptation of means to ends which we find around us, and concludes that such an adaptation evidently points to the existence of a supreme Designer. Absolutely speaking, a casual shock of atoms might indeed have produced the world such as it is, just as printing characters, thrown at random, might give the play of Hamlet, but the chance for such a production is so insignificant that it may be neglected.

This argument has received a severe blow from Darwin's theory of natural selection. It is even contended that it has been absolutely killed. It is morally impossible that the paw of the cat, so perfectly adapted to the catching of the prey, should have been produced by a casual shock of atoms, just as it is morally impossible that printing types, thrown at random, should give the play of Hamlet. But, if we adopt the theory of natural selection; if we admit that the types which happen to fall in the definite place they have in the play shall persist in existence while the others shall disappear, the play of Hamlet will fatally be produced.

We should be cautious, however, not to assert too hastily that the argument from design has been absolutely killed. The hypothesis of natural selection explains the order of the world without taking a supreme Designer into account. But what of natural selection itself? How are we to explain the tendency of the atoms towards definite arrangements, the fact that some arrangements persist in existence while others are destroyed? Instead of the innate tendency of the atoms towards definite groups, why was there not a tendency towards a perpetual chaos? A chaotic cosmos seems indeed the only possible outcome of a mere shock of atoms, and the hypothesis of natural selection is a nonsense if we do not admit finality. All the perfections of the future world must thus be supposed to exist potentially in the originary chaos, and the necessity of a designer by no means disappears.

The metaphysical argument is based upon the principle of causality. The fact that no beginning of existence can happen without a cause has been proved in our chapter on metaphysics and needs not be insisted upon. In the metaphysical argument, the form of the principle of causality is somewhat modified. "Whatever does not exist of absolute necessity, it is contended, cannot exist without a proportionate cause.[4] Which means that the cause, considered in its totality, must contain a perfection at least equal to that of the effect. The validity of this form of the principle of causality might perhaps be questioned. It is strongly defended by neo-Scholasties, who contend that if the cause failed to be proportionate, the excess of the effect would really be without cause, and the general law of causality would be thereby violated.[5]

The necessity of a proportionate cause being admitted, the existence of a Supreme Mind follows as a necessary consequence. A clear idea of the Scholastic line of reasoning may be gathered from the following three propositions in which the argument may be summed up:

1. There are changes in our world, and these changes presuppose a cause. The truth of this first proposition has been clearly shown in our chapter on metaphysics.

2. These changes presuppose a self-existing cause. If the cause of the changes is not self-existing, it must be caused by something else. This something else, if not self-existing, must also be caused, and we must finally arrive at a self-existing being; otherwise we would have an infinite process, and no change would be possible, inasmuch as a sufficient cause of the change could never be found. Thus far there is nothing in our argument which a materialist would fail to admit. A self-existing being exists, he would say, but we need not go beyond the molecule, the atom, the material world. The following proposition separates the Scholastic system from all materialistic hypotheses:

3. This self-existing being must be an immaterial and free being. The ultimate cause of the world must not simply be a cause; it must be a proportionate cause. The world contains immaterial and free beings, such as the human soul. Therefore the cause of the world must be an immaterial and free being, that is to say, a personal God.


The Divine Being of the Scholastics possesses three fundamental attributes: he is infinite, one and simple.

The doctrine of an infinite God is not without difficulty. Some Catholic philosophers have thought that, although faith obliges us to believe in the infinity of the Supreme Being, this infinity cannot strictly be proved by reason alone. In a recent article of the Revue de Philosophie (1906), Mr. Dessoulavy expressed his sympathy for Schiller's thesis on this subject. The modern followers of St. Thomas, however, strongly insist upon the capacity of philosophy to reach a knowledge of the infinity of God. They adopt the line of reasoning which led Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to the concept of pure actuality (actus purus).

Every finite being, they argue, consists of actuality and potency: of actuality in so far as it possesses some perfections; of potency, in so far as it is capable of acquiring the perfections it does not possess. Now the actual is logically anterior to the potential, because a potential being cannot become actual unless it be acted upon by an actual being. The ultimate cause of reality must not therefore contain any potentiality; otherwise it would presuppose another cause and would not be ultimate. It must be pure actuality, and accordingly possess all perfections in an infinite degree.[6]

From the infinity of God follows his unity as a logical consequence. If there were several Gods, they should differ in some characteristics. Each of them would thus lack the peculiar perfections which characterize the others, and none could be infinite.[7]

The proof of God's simplicity rests upon his self-existence. Whatever is compound depends upon its constituent elements and upon the cause of their union. As God is the ultimate ground of all reality, he cannot depend upon anything else and must be absolutely simple.[8]

From these three fundamental attributes, all attributes of the Divine Being are derived. They are not all, however, establlished in the same way. As our intuitive knowledge is limited to finite beings, it is from these finite beings that we must rise to a conception of the infinite. Now the attributes of creatures are of several orders: some involve imperfection, others do not. The attributes which involve imperfection, such as extension, reason, etc., cannot be predicated of God who is infinitely perfect. Those which involve no imperfection, such as intelligence, power, etc., are properly in God. But whereas finite beings possess these attributes in a limited degree, God, in virtue of his infinity, possesses them as boundless and infinite.

The attributes of the Supreme Being may be therefore classified into negative and positive.

The negative attributes are immutability, eternity and immensity. They do not give us any real knowledge of God. They simply remove from the conception of the Infinite some imperfections attached to finite things. They do not show us what God is, but what he is not.

God's immutability is closely connected with his infinity. Whatever admits of change is not infinitely perfect. It lacks at some moment of its existence the perfections it subsequently acquires. It possesses some potentiality and is not, like the Divine Being, absolutely actual.

God's eternity can be proved in a similar way. When the Scholastics assert that God is eternal, they do not, as is sometimes supposed, simply mean that he had no beginning and shall know no end; they also remove from his conception the element of succession. They mean that there exists for him no past and no future; that his being is a perennial present.

We have already touched upon the question of God's immensity in our chapter on Psychology. We have shown that, in St. Thomas's view, the assertion that "God is everywhere" does not mean that he is present in all parts of space as bodies are. It means that he acts upon all things; that he is present in them by a contact of virtue, not by a contact of quantity.

The positive attributes of the Divine Being are his knowledge, his will, and his omnipotence.

God has a comprehensive knowledge of his essence, and in his own essence he sees the essences of all real and possible things. His knowledge extends to the contingent as well as to the necessary; and, inasmuch as he is eternal, to the future as well as to the past.

The faculty of will consisting in the love of the object presented by the intellect as good, involves no imperfection and must be found in the Supreme Being. God loves his own essence necessarily, because his essence is the supreme and infinite good, and is therefore worthy of an infinite love. His love for creatures is an outcome of the love he bears to himself. It is in his own essence that he knows all finite beings, of which his essence is the prototype. It is in his own essence that he loves all finite beings, the perfections and the goodness of which are found in his essence in an infinite degree.

God is also omnipotent. He can do by a single act of will whatever is not intrinsically impossible. As for things whose concept involves a contradiction -- such as a square circle, or a man being an ass -- it is only an improper use of the terms that leads us to assert that God cannot do them: it would be more correct to say that the things themselves cannot be done. They involve a contradiction, and the Infinite Being must above all be self-consistent. It is the same self-consistency that explains how God cannot possibly commit sinful acts. The essence of sin consisting, not precisely in the production of an effect, but in the opposition of our free will to the eternal law of God, its presence in the Divine Being would involve the denial of his own self.

The preceding classification of the attributes of God should not, however, lead us to believe that the Divine Essence is considered by Thomists as divided into separate and unconnected compartments. Hegel's reproach against the old Metaphysics, of cutting off from their connection the terms of thought,[9] is absolutely unjust if directed against Scholastic speculation. St. Thomas and his followers insist upon the physical and metaphysical simplicity of the Divine Being. We assign attributes to God, it is true; but we must not forget that these attributes, although different for us, are essentially one in God. God is his essence, or his nature;[10] his essence is his own being;[11] his intellect his own being;[12] his will is also his own being.[13] If we are compelled to study his attributes separately, it is on account of the imperfection of our mind, which, being essentially finite, cannot grasp the Infinite: "Balbutiendo, ut possumus, excelsa Dei resonamus."[14]

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