Jacques Maritain Center : St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny

CHAPTER 4: Thomas Aquinas and Platonism

I. The Platonism of the Fathers

The acceptance of Aristotle as the philosopher carries with it an attitude toward Plato. However reluctant he may have been to criticize his mentor and other old friends, Aristotle managed to conquer his disinclination frequently enough to leave us a picture of Platonism that is not calculated to win adherents to the teachings of his old master. It is not an ideal situation for a philosophical doctrine to be both described and assessed by an adversary. We ourselves can test the accuracy of Aristotle's account of what Plato said by turning to Plato himself, but, as we have observed, this course was not open to Thomas Aquinas. There simply was not that much Plato in Latin translation. The Timaeus, a partial translation of which had been available for some time, is not, one might say, the most typical Platonic dialogue. It may be that Thomas saw translations of the Meno and Phaedo but we do not know this for certain. Clearly then, from the point of view of the writings of the two philosophers, Thomas was in the position of having all or most of Aristotle and next to none of Plato. From this we might want to conclude that things would surely have been different if Thomas had been able to turn that brilliant and sympathetic mind of his onto the Dialogues. Could he have failed to respond to the sinuous intellectual excitement of the Theaetetus or Sophist, and would he not have found the Parmenides a metaphysical feast of the first order? What a shame, this vision of a past contrary to fact concludes, that the battle for Thomas's mind was such an unequal one.

There are not wanting scholars to contend that Plato, despite the unevenness of the match, came close to winning the mind of Thomas.{1} Within the massive figure of that Italian friar, we are urged to believe, there was a Platonist struggling to get out. Nor was this merely the genius loci at work, the spirit of Greek philosophy haunting still the southern parts of Italy. We need not rely on thoughts of Plato's trips to Sicily, building from them and from Thomas's birthplace the notion that the two men were, in a way, fellow citizens. The fact is that from the point of view of influence, from Patristic times on into the 13th century, the balance was tipped in favor of Plato.

Influence is a far more subtle thing than the factual givenness of the texts of an author, but it is nonetheless a factor and one that can be traced with reasonable accuracy. It is by way of being a cliché that the pagan philosopher whom the Fathers of the Church found most congenial was Plato.{2} If they found any good at all in philosophy, it was because of Plato. Indeed, so compatible did they find him that they professed to see foreshadowings of Christian doctrine in his writings. Or was it that they saw the tenets of the faith through the medium of Platonism? Certainly some of the Fathers studied philosophy before becoming Christians. The study of philosophy in the early centuries of our era went on in a situation almost the exact reverse of the one we find in the 13th century. If in the latter, it is Aristotle who can be read and Plato who is lost, in the former Plato is read, the Academy continues, while Aristotle is lost. This phenomenon of the lost Aristotle fascinates scholars.{3 Stories were told of how the loss occurred: texts buried, only to be discovered later. Yet in one way Aristotle was not lost. Cicero, who studied in Athens, remarks on the beauty of Aristotle's style, a judgment which is found to give pause to the students of the Treatises but which, given the stature of Cicero, can scarcely be dismissed out of hand. What is the explanation? It seems to be this. Besides the Treatises, which for us are Aristotle, namely, the Physics, On the Soul, Metaphysics, Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and so forth, Aristotle also wrote dialogues. It is the dialogues that Cicero must have had in mind, and we wonder if he knew the Treatises. Perhaps not.

Lest we think that all this has been resolved in our times, consider this final ironic twist. As soon as Aristotle comes into the West in force, in the Treatises, his dialogues drop out of sight. To this very day, scholars are piecing together those lost writings of Aristotle. What we have of them produces a surprising effect. We have been instructed, by Aristotle himself in the Treatises, to regard his thought as in the main opposed to that of Plato. But in the dialogues, as they have been reconstructed, it is a Platonic Aristotle we read -- in themes, in style, even in doctrine. It was this which underlay the theory of Werner Jaeger that we shall allude to in our next chapter. And how do scholars reconstruct a lost text? By searching in Hellenistic and Patristic writers for allusions, paraphrases, direct quotations. When any of the Church Fathers mentions Aristotle with approval, chances are that he is thinking of a dialogue rather than of a treatise.

All this is important because the Church Fathers are important. Their influence on theology and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages was enormous. After Scripture, they constitute the chief authority and guide for the interpretation of the mysteries of faith. Thus, if they were as a group largely Platonist in outlook, the influence of Plato on the Middle Ages can hardly be discounted. In the previous chapter, in discussing two quite different accounts of the division of theoretical science in the works of Boethius, we suggested that he reveals a Platonic predilection. But the single greatest vehicle of Platonic influence was Saint Augustine.

A. Saint Augustine (345-430)

The whole matter of Augustine's relationship to Platonism is vexed and complicated. If we try to give a fairly straight forward account here, we nevertheless remind the reader that there are difficulties we are not taking into account, although, of course, none of them is thought to falsify the picture we sketch. In the Confessions, Augustine tells us that he studied Greek but that it did not take. There is therefore reason to doubt that he ever read Plato, and the linguistic problem remains for one who would say that the real influence on Augustine was not Plato but the Neoplatonist Plotinus. Add to this the fact that Augustine wrote a book of some length entitled Contra academicos, that is, against the members of Plato's Academy. The point is that (a) there are problems of access to Plato, and indeed to Plotinus, is Augustine did not read Greek, and (b) there is a prima facie case that, whatever the manner of his acquisition of knowledge about it, his assessment of Platonism was negative.

It is very easy, however, to construct an opposed picture to which Augustine appears excessively laudatory of Platonism. Indeed, in the very work he wrote against the members of the Academy, Augustine calls Plato "the wisest and most learned man of his time,"{4} and the passage continues as a veritable paean of praise. Plato has achieved the perfect philosophy, one that Augustine regards as all but indistinguishable from Christianity. The fact that Plato's principal concerns were God and the soul was bound to commend him to Augustine, and, in The City of God,{5} he tells us that Plato taught that God is incorporeal, immutable, surpassing every soul, cause of all else, understanding and happiness. In the same work,{6} Augustine holds that happiness is the aim of philosophy. Consequently, if God is happiness, it would seem that the aim of philosophy is to attain to God.

There are difficulties in the way of the Christian who sees pagans engaged in a pursuit whose aim is union with God. St. Paul warned believers not to be led astray by philosophy (Col.2:8), Augustine quotes the passage, but balances it with what Paul wrote to the Romans (Rom. 1:19-20). The message would seem to be one of caution, and Augustine feels that it cannot be philosophers like the Platonists against whom Paul warned. "This, therefore, is the reason we prefer these to all the others, because, while other philosophers have worn out their minds and powers in seeking the causes of things, and in endeavoring to discover the right mode of learning and living, these, by knowing God, have found where resides the cause by which the universe has been constituted and the light by which truth is to be discovered, and the fountain at which felicity is to be drunk."{7}

We can trace in the writings of Augustine alterations in his attitude toward Platonism. As a line, it would start at the left, high on the chart of approval, and then gradually descend as it proceeds, but always staying on the chart and far from the bottom. Along this line, we find Augustine toying with the idea that the Timaeus was influenced by Genesis. The Platonists almost but not quite taught the doctrine of the Trinity. He sees few obstacles in the way of concordance: "Now in the matter of authority, I have chosen Christ for my leader, from whose direction I will never deviate. . . .As regards the matters which are to be investigated by close reasoning, I am such that I impatiently desire to grasp the truth not only through faith but also through understanding, and I am confident that there will be found in the Platonists nothing repugnant to faith."{8} His ardor may cool, but for Augustine Plato remains the philosopher.

What is the main attraction that Platonism holds for Augustine? Precisely what, in reading Aristotle, we would take to be the central tenet of Platonism, namely, the Ideas. ". . . Plato thought there were two worlds, one intelligible, another manifest to us by sight and touch. The former is the principle of pure and serene truth jn the soul which knows itself, whereas the latter can engender opinion in the minds of the foolish but not science."{9} Augustine goes on: "The Ideas are the chief forms or the stable and unchangeable notions of things which have not themselves been formed and thus are eternal and unalterable; they are contained in the divine intelligence."{10} The Ideas thus play a dual role: (a) epistemologically, they provide adequate objects for intellectual knowing: they are stable, unchanging, immaterial; (b) ontologically, they are the patterns, types, and, at least in that sense, the causes of physical things. The place of these ideas is the divine intelligence; they are not a realm of things distinct from God. Indeed, they are identifiable with the Divine Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. They are the patterns according to which God created.

We shall be interested in what Thomas makes of this. What has he to say of the Ideas? What has he to say of the theory of knowledge attached to the doctrine of Ideas? If we can get some clarity on these two matters, we shall know a good deal of what Thomas thought of the Platonism of Augustine.

B. Pseudo-Dionysius

When we hear that the author most quoted by Thomas in the Summa theologiae is Pseudo-Dionysius, we can be forgiven our surprise.{11} Scholars may know him, but this Dionysius, or Denis, is hardly a household name. Indeed, precisely who he was is lost in obscurity, an obscurity he deliberately fostered by describing himself as that Denis the Areopagite converted by St. Paul. Since his works could not have been written much before A.D. 500, we must either grant him the lifespan of an Old Testament patriarch or doubt his word. He is called the Pseudo Dionysius. But Thomas Aquinas had no reason to doubt the apostolic connections of Denis and thus he treats him with the deference due texts that are the next thing to the canonical writings themselves. Those writings, even when we are forced to recognize that their author was putting on the act of an apostle, bear close reading. Thomas clearly knew them well. They are On the Celestial Hierarchy, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, On the Divine Names, and On Mystical Theology. Thomas wrote a commentary on the work on the divine names, and it is a marvel of profundity and subtlety. Here, as in the Book of Causes, compiled as we have seen from the Neoplatonist Proclus's Elements of Theology, Thomas must confront that corollary to the doctrine of Ideas, namely, participation. Aristotle singled out participation of obloquy. Nonetheless, as several scholars have shown,{12} participation is not something that Thomas rejects as Aristotle did.

We have, then, a number of points consideration of which will give us some insight into Thomas's attitude toward Platonism. The first has to do with Ideas, their cognitive and ontological role. The second has to do with participation. We shall discuss the first in terms of the problem of universals and of the theory of knowledge. We shall discuss the second with especial reference to the names of God.

II The Problem of Universals

The problem of universals was bequeathed to the Middle Ages by Boethius in his translation of and commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyry.{13} Porphyry was writing an introduction to the Categories of Aristotle in which the supreme genera of things are discussed. In the genus of substance, we might say, fall the various elements which enter into the definitions of species of substance. We are, in short, face to face with the topic on which Plato and Aristotle diverge, a topic which Porphyry tells his reader is too abstruse to be discussed in an introductory work. However, he goes on to enumerate the components of the disagreement he will not discuss. The problem of universals turns out to be three questions that can be asked about the status of genera and species. Before listing those questions, we should have in mind the definition of "genus" and "species" that Porphyry provides. A genus is predicable of many specifically different things, as living body is predicable to plants and beasts. A species is predicable of many numerically different things, as man is predicable of Socrates and Plato. Now of genera and species we can ask: (1) Do they subsist, or are they only aspects or products of our understanding of subsistent things? (2) If they subsist, are they corporeal or incorporeal? (3) If incorporeal, where are they, separate from sensible things or located in them?

The very development of the questions has a Platonic flavor. It is as if we asked whether, in a list of the things that are, we must include, over and above entities like Socrates and Plato, man, animal, and substance. The second question is phrased on the assumption that genera and species are subsistent things. Given that, we are meant to inquire whether they are bodily or not. And then, apparently assuming that they are incorporeal, the third question asks after the location of them, apart from or somehow within corporeal things.

It may be read as an Aristotelian parody of Platonism, but the simplest way of stating the doctrine of Ideas is to say that for Plato a term that is a common name of physical objects is the proper name of another kind of object, a separate incorporeal entity. Thus, if "man" is a common noun with respect to Plato and Socrates, it is the proper name of an entity, Man, Manhood, or Humanity, by participation in which individuals are and are what they are. Thus, solutions to the problem of universals can be thought of as theories of the meanings of common nouns. The motive for thinking that there must be separate objects which respond to common nouns considered as proper names is clear.

Let us say that I have vast knowledge of fruit flies. You ask me what a fruit fly is and what a fruit fly does and I answer with that pithy clarity one expects of experts. "But which fruit fly are you speaking of?" you ask. A tolerant grimace disfigures my normally pleasant countenance. I explain that I am not speaking of any particular fruit fly. The complete present population of fruit flies could be replaced by different fruit flies and what I have told you will continue to obtain. My knowledge of fruit flies is not something that ceases to be when one or indeed the whole set of existent fruit flies ceases to be. But what do I know if the object of my knowledge is not these particular fruit flies? Quite spontaneously, perhaps, we want to say that what the entomologist knows is the nature of fruit flies, fruit-flyness, as it were. And what is that? Where is it? These are the questions which make up the problem of universals. The Platonic answer was the doctrine of Ideas, that being the term to designate the things whose proper name the common noun is. Aristotle rejected this and so did Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas writes: "The human intellect knows in a manner mid-way between that of sense and angelic knowing: it is not the act of any organ, but it is the power of a soul which is the form of a body, as has been seen above. Therefore, it is proper to it to know a form which exists indeed individually in corporeal matter, but not as it is in such matter. But to know that which exists in individual matter, though not as it exists in such matter, is to abstract the form from individual matter, which sense images represent. Therefore, we must say that our intellect understands material things by abstracting from sense images; and it is by means of material things thus understood that we come to some knowledge of immaterial things, whereas for angels the reverse is true."{14} A way of getting at what Thomas is saying here is the following. Consider this sequence:

(1) Man is a species.

(2) Socrates is a man.

(3) Socrates is a species.

This is unacceptable. To see why, we need only recall the meaning of "species." Something is said to be a species insofar as it is predicable of many numerically different things. Socrates cannot be predicated of numerically different things. But the following sequence is all right:

(4) Man is capable of laughter.

(5) Socrates is man.

(6) Socrates is capable of laughter.

The capacity to laugh pertains to human nature as it is found in individuals like Socrates, whereas predictability-of-many, that is, universality, does not. Nonetheless, the capacity to laugh does not pertain to human nature as it is found in individuals the way in which running does. That is,

(7) Socrates is running

Is true, let us say, and this can be expressed as

(8) Man is running.

But we cannot continue thus:

(9) Plato is a man.

(10) Plato is running.

Thus, something pertains to, is predicated of, a nature in different ways. Thomas therefore notes that nature or essence can be considered in two ways.

In one way according to its proper notion, and this is an absolute consideration of it, and thus nothing is true of it which does not pertain to it as such; to attribute anything else to it is false. For example, rational and animal and whatever enters into his definition pertains to man as man, whereas white or black or whatever is not of the definition of man does not pertain to man as man. That is why, if we are asked if this nature is one or many, we should not concede that it is either, because both are outside the concept of humanity and both can pertain to it only accidentally.{15}

If plurality belonged to human nature as such, it could not be one, as it is in Socrates; if uniqueness belonged to it as such, it could not be multiplied in Socrates, Plato, and so on.

In another way the nature can be considered as it is had by this or that, and thus something can be predicatedof it accidentally, by reason of the subject which has it, as we say that man is white because Socrates is white, although this does not pertain to man as such.{16}

In (4) above, we have an instance of something said of human nature as such. What is the basis of (1) and (8)?

This nature, however, has a twofold existence: one in singulars and another in the soul, and following on either things can be said accidentally of the nature; in singulars, it has as well a multiple existence because of their diversity. Neither of these pertains to the nature considered in the first way, the absolute consideration of it. For it is false to say that the essence of man, as man, has existence in the singular, since if existence in this singular pertained to man as man, the nature could only be in this singular; by the same token, if not to be in this singular pertained to man as man, the nature would never be in it.{17}

Something can be true of human nature as it exists in the mind or as it exists in singulars that is not true of it as such. Now one of the things which pertains to human nature as a consequence or concomitant of our way of knowing it is precisely universality: predictability of many. That is why our sequence (1)-(3) did not work; it commits the fallacy of the per accidens.

Thomas's solution to the problem of universals, then, is this. To-be-a-species or to-be-a-genus is true of the nature per accidens because of our mode of knowing the forms or nature of material things. The nature as considered by us does not therefore warrant the claim that there must be additional subsistent things, out there, things like Plato's Ideas.

But what of Thomas and Augustine? Surely when Augustine speaks of the Ideas, he has something different in mind from what Plato meant by the term. For Augustine, the Ideas are patterns in the divine mind according to which God creates. Thomas has little difficulty accepting this Augustinian relocation of the ideas. We must, he says, posit Ideas in the divine mind.{18} Idea can be rendered in Lain as forma, and by Ideas can be understood the forms of other things existing apart from those things. But the form of a thing existing apart from it can be one of two things, insofar as its exemplar is said to be its form, or as the principle of knowing it is, for the forms of knowable things are said to be in the knower. In both understandings of the term, he concludes, we must posit Ideas.

In anything that does not come about simply by chance, the form is the end of the generation. But an agent does not act for the sake of a form unless it has a similitude of the form in itself, something which can obtain in two ways. In some agents the form of the thing to be made preexists according to natural existence, as in things which act through nature: thus man generates man and fire fire. In other agents, however, it has an intelligible existence: thus the similitude of the house preexists in the mind of the builder. And this can be called the Idea of the house since the builder means the house to be like the form he has mentally conceived.{19}

Even the example is Augustinian. And the application is clear. The world did not come about due to chance, but was made by God. God needed then to have in mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And this is the sense of Idea.

So we see Thomas rejecting Platonic Ideas insofar as these are invoked to solve the problem of universals and instead opting for the Aristotelian solution. Nonetheless, he is able to accept what Augustine has made of the Ideas, namely, the patterns according to which God creates. But there are difficulties with and divergences from, the Augustinian position insofar as Ideas are invoked to speak not of God's creative knowing but of ordinary human knowing.

III. Illumination and Abstraction

One of the motivations for the development of the Platonic doctrine of Ideas is to be found in the origin of knowledge. Earlier, we portrayed it largely in terms of the commensurate object of knowledge: singulars as such do not seem to explain knowledge; therefore, let us introduce another realm of entities that will. But then the question arises, and of course it arose for Plato too: what is the mode of our access to the Ideas? However fraught with imperfection the evanescent things of the physical world may be, and however precarious our cognitive grasp of them, that we are cognitively in contact with them, in some way, does not seem terribly problematic. But if knowledge in the strong sense bears on another realm of entities, how do we get into contact with them? In perception, the fact that we see things is just that, a fact, a starting point, however it is to be explained. Can we say that in some similarly direct and immediate way we see the Ideas? Plato grappled with this in a variety of ways; he even told some stories that were meant to circumvent the difficulty. Thus, he suggested that the soul existed prior to its union with the body, in which state it was on intimate terms with the things that really are, the Ideas. Then, presumably, the eye of the soul simply saw them. Well, something happened.

Imagine such a soul plunged into a body, imprisoned there, and say that now the eye of the soul is darkened because it is tempted to think that the things it sees through the bodily eye are real. And this of course is a delusion. Who can read the passage in the Republic where Plato likens us to prisoners in a cave, condemned to face the back wall upon which the shadows of artifacts are cast by a fire behind us, without being profoundly moved? The task of philosophy, of those moved by the love of wisdom, is to free us from such delusions. The things of this world may function to remind us of the really real things, the Ideas, whose pale imitation they are; then the mind and soul can turn away from the world of change and return to the realm of ideas.

His dramatic portrait of the human situation had a deserved impact on the Church Fathers, as it must perhaps on anyone: the idea of man as an exiled soul, of this life as a time of trial during which one could earn the right to return to a lost and better condition, and of the tugging of our attention away from the evanescent things of this world toward the Ideas, the eternal, the divine. Can we wonder that Augustine found this vision attractive and in many ways an adumbration of Christianity? Yet his acceptance of it led him inevitably in the direction of the unacceptable.

The Ideas, we remember, function as the objects of true knowledge. Any true knowledge. But Augustine has identified the Ideas with the Divine Ideas and finally with the Word of God. Does he mean to say that, whenever we know, really know, we are somehow knowing the Divine Ideas, knowing God? Like Plato, he does not see how the changing, contingent things of this world can explain necessary unchanging knowledge. The Augustinians of Thomas's own time took this to mean that Aristotle's account of intellectual knowledge, by way of abstractions from sense images, would not do.{20}There might be a role, a subsidiary role, for abstraction. But knowledge in any truly serious sense of the term requires illumination, a direct imparting from God, a participation in the kind of knowledge God has of the Ideas. Thomas confronts this implication directly and with explicit reference to Augustine.

Augustine, he notes,{21} imbued as he was with Platonism, tended to accept from it everything compatible with the faith and to alter that which was incompatible in such a way that it became acceptable. Now Plato held, as we have seen, that the forms of things subsist in themselves apart from matter, and he called these forms ideas. It was by participation in these Ideas that our minds know whatever they know. Corporeal matter, by participation in the Idea of stone, becomes a stone, and so too, by participation in the same Idea, our minds know stone.

But because it seems alien to faith to hold that the forms of things subsist in themselves without matter, as the Platonists held, saying that Life Itself and Wisdom itself are creative substances, as Denis had in On the Divine Names Chapter 11, Augustine in the 8 Diverse Questions, Question 46, put in place of the ideas Plato posited notions of all things existing in the divine mind, according to which all things are fashioned and according to which also the human soul knows all things.{22}

Now, when it is asked whether the human soul knows all things in the eternal Ideas, we should reply that something can be known in another thing in two ways.

In one way, as in the object known, as one sees in a mirror those things whose images are reflected there. In this way, in the present life, we cannot see things in the eternal notions, but this is the way the blessed know who see God and all things in God. In another way something is said to be known in something as in the principle of the knowledge: as we say that things are seen in the sun which are seen in the light of the sun. It is thus that we must say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal notions, through participation in which we know all things. But the intellectual light which is in us is nothing other than a participation similitude of uncreated light, in which are constituted the eternal notions.{23}

Perhaps the most intricate Augustinian treatment of this matter is to be found in his dialogue On the Teacher, which is by way of being an extended gloss on the text that we have no other teacher but Christ, who teaches within. Thomas, in his Disputed Question On the Teacher,{24} shows himself at his synthesizing best when he effectively identifies the participated created light in our soul, thanks to which we know what we know, with Aristotle's agent intellect, which is a faculty of the soul.

Essential and Participated Perfection

Thus far, we have seen Thomas confront two aspects of Platonism in a manner which suggests that Platonic doctrines receive their laissez-passer only if they can be construed in an Aristotelian fashion. Scholars who profess to see Thomas vacillate between Aristotle and Plato, and even to opt for the latter over the former, must overlook some rather striking evidence to the contrary. The commentary on the Book of Causes, in its entirety, exhibits a Thomas for whom Platonism must always justify itself at the bar of Aristotelianism. This cannot be dismissed as simply a terminological matter, as if he were helping his reader with a difficult text by recasting its message in a more familiar vocabulary. His procedure is clearly judgmental.{25} When he rejects things, it is not simply because Proclus says something different from Aristotle, but because the difference involves him in falsity.

There are, it is true, times when Thomas suggests that Plato has it over Aristotle. One instance of this may be found in the Treatise on Separated Substances, where he seems to commend Plato for not restricting the number of separated substances, or angels, to the number of celestial movements, as Aristotle did.{26} Nonetheless, later in the same work,{27} he refutes the Platonic doctrine of ideas. It is as if he feels that Aristotle gives a rational justification for holding that there are immaterial, separate substances, but that the very mode of his proof limits him in the number he can justify. If we could only waive the fact that Plato's talk about separate substances is not justified, based as it is upon a mistake about common nouns, it would be preferable to have the vast number of them that he speaks of.

Now if there is anywhere that we would expect an alleged wavering on the question of Platonism and Aristotelianism to exhibit itself, it would be when Thomas comments on the work of pseudo-Dionysius. For Thomas, as we have noted, this author was Denis the Areopagite, a man who had known St. Paul and had indeed been converted by him. Far more than in the case of Augustine even, Thomas would have been reluctant to be critical here of an undeniable Platonism. But does he waver? He does not. In the proemium to his commentary, he gives a sketch of the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, and then says this: "This argument of the Platonists, then, is consonant neither with faith nor with the truth in regard to what it says about separated natural species, but in regard to what it says about the first principle of all things, their opinion is most true and it is consonant with Christian faith."{28} It is this distinction in the possible understanding of the Platonic thing-in-itself that we want now to examine.

The Platonism Thomas rejects holds that this man, that man, the other man, singular entities all, are and are what they are by participating in the Idea of Man-itself, or humanity. Thus to be a man is to partake of, to share in, humanity. The living thing is such because it shares in, participates in. Life-itself. And so on. We have here what Socrates calls the easy mode of explanation. Why are two numbers equal? Because they participate in equality. Why are marbles round? Because they partake of roundness. And when the abstract term, or the concrete term with "itself" added, is taken to be the proper name of a separate entity, this mode of talk, innocuous in itself, becomes Platonism. And the Platonism that Thomas rejects.

At the same time, he suggests that this sort of framework has application when we wish to speak of the first cause of things, the first principle God is. While we should hesitate to say that there is some separate entity, humanity, which is the cause of individual men, or some separate entity, whiteness, which brings it about that some things are white, this kind of talk does not seem so odd when it shows up in, "There is a separate immaterially existing being which is the cause of all beings." The beings which are the effects can be said to have, to possess, or to partake of, existence; the being who is the cause of their existing can be said to be Existence-itself. We are familiar with the tendency, when speaking of God, to use abstract terms almost in preference to concrete ones. God is being, in the sense of a being, yes, but better to say that he is existence, beingness. God is wise, and God is wisdom. God is good, and God is goodness. The model that the Platonist mistakenly applies to terms abstractly expressing the formal and inherent properties of creatures seems just what we want when we talk about God.

If we should say of a woman that she is beautiful and then, pained by the inadequacy of the remark, say that she is beauty; if we should say of someone that he is wisdom or justice personified, we would seem to be recognizing that simply to say that one is beautiful, wise, or just allows for the fact that the one we are speaking of does not exhaust the meaning of beauty, wisdom, and justice. The trouble is that beauty and wisdom and justice do not seem to be among the things that are in the same sense that beautiful, wise, and just individuals are.{29} The concrete term has the merit that its mode of signification suggests subsistence, but the defect that a limitation of the perfection by which the thing is designated is also suggested. The abstract term has the merit of expressing a perfection as unlimited, but the defect that its mode of signifying does not suggest that it can directly apply to a subsistent thing. That is why both concrete and abstract terms are inadequate when applied to God.{30} Still, there is an especial attraction in abstract terms, and though we are conscious that our language is being strained to the utmost when we do this, we want to say that God is wisdom, God is justice, God is goodness.

One of the objections to Plato is that the realm of abstract entities multiplies ferociously once we admit Ideas. From Socrates alone we generate humanity, animality, rationality, life, knowledge, substance, being and so on. If the model employed by the generation of Ideas is to be applied to talk about God, we are going to need (a) criteria for accepting the abstract terms that can be applied to God, (b) the proviso that a multitude of abstract terms does not argue for a plurality of referents: there is only one God, and (c) a way of relating abstract terms applicable to God to one another: is one of them least inadequate as a name of God?

If we return to an earlier example, we can distinguish between particular fruit flies and fruit-flyness: the latter will be what the former have, share in, partake of. Very well. But surely we would hesitate to think of fruit-flyness as a name of God. Why? The abstract term, unlike the concrete term, has an unrestricted mode of signifying, yet the perfection, form, or nature signified contains matter as part of its definition. Not even abstract fruit-flyness can get along without wings and senses and so forth. But such material, corporeal features, much as they are part of the perfection of fruit-flyness, are, on a cosmic scale, imperfections.

Abstract terms like justice, wisdom, and goodness fare better as names of God because not only do they escape from the restricted modes of the corresponding concrete terms -- just, wise, good -- but the perfection itself does not as such involve material and corporeal components.

But again from the side of what is formal, in some of these a certain imperfection is designated; as in desire, which is of a good not had; and in sadness, which is of an evil had. The same is true of anger, which presupposes sadness. There are some, however, which designate no imperfection, like love and joy. Since then none of these belongs to God according to what is material in them. . . those which imply imperfection even when considered formally can pertain to God only metaphorically, because of some similarity of effect. . . .Those which do not imply imperfection can properly be said of God, like love and joy.{31}

The only way we can talk of God, the only way God can talk to us, is through a language devised to speak of quite different sorts of things. It is in knowing these things that we can come to knowledge of their cause, and the cause is thus spoken of, designated, from his effects. What Thomas is giving above are criteria for selecting the effects whose names can be transferred to God.

If wisdom and justice and goodness are names of God and God is absolutely one and simple,{32}are these terms synonymous? Thomas thinks not.{33} They all, all the names of God, have the same referent, but they have different senses or meanings. It is when we find a created perfection which, while limited, in creatures, does not, considered abstractly, seem to demand the restricted created mode, that we have a way of talking about God. And of course each of them is inadequate to express what God is. We can fashion a notion of unrestricted goodness by negating the limitations of created good things, but this does not enable us to understand what it would be like for goodness itself to exist. These abstract terms, drawn as they are from distinct perfections, retain their different senses. A further mark of their inadequacy is that we cannot understand how the referent of justice, mercy and love, say, can be an utterly simple entity.

For the Neoplatonist, for Pseudo-Dionysius,{34} such abstract terms, considered as names of God, relate to one another in the following way: there is a hierarchy or order among them with being or existence first, then life, then wisdom and so on. Let us consider just these three. The point about Aristotle's objection to the proliferation of Ideas is that, in reifying genera and species and thereby establishing an order of subsistent immaterial entities, a premium is put on the most abstract. The genus is more general or universal than the species, and the higher the genus the more universal it is. But the hierarchy of genera and species is, for Aristotle, a mark of the imperfection of our knowing and certainly not an indication of an objective order of more and more perfect entities as we rise toward greater generality.

Let us put the point less obscurely. To know of something that it exists, that it is a being, would seem to be to know less of it than to know that it is alive; to know that it is alive is to know less of it than to know that it is an animal; to know that it is an animal is to know less than to know that it is human, and so on. When, for instance, I finally realize that I am confronted with my mother-in-law, this is to know considerably more than I did when I knew her only as a being, however nostalgic I may in this instance be for that blisssful ignorance of yore. In short, the more general the knowledge, the more confused, vague, and imperfect it is. How odd then to put a premium on such generality and vagueness and to speak of the highest genera not only as existent but even as more perfect existents than fully designated concrete particulars. It is this that underlies that rather wholesale rejection of Platonism that we find in Thomas when he accuses the Platonists of confusing what is first in our knowledge with what is first in reality, of confusing the conceptual and real hierarchies.{35}

Although Thomas never wavers -- how could he? -- in his rejection of Platonism so understood, he nonetheless feels, as in the passage we quote from the proemium of his commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius's On the Divine Names, that, with modifications, a hierarchy based on ever greater predicable universality can be used to introduce order into the various names of God. He wants to say that being itself is more perfect than life, and life than wisdom, and that Subsisting Existence Itself (ipsum esse subsistens) is therefore the least imperfect name of God. The following passage helps us to see what he does, as well as what he does not, mean.

Dionysius says that although existence itself (ipsum esse) is more perfect than life, and life itself than wisdom, if they are considered as they are distinguished by reason, nonetheless the living thing is more perfect than that which is only a being, because a living thing is also a being, and he who is wise is a being and a living being. Therefore, although being does not include in itself living and wise, because it is not necessary that whatever participates in existence participate in it according to every mode of existing, nonetheless God's very existence includes in itself life and wisdom, because none of the perfections of existence can be lacking in that which is subsisting existence itself (ipsum esse subsistens).{36}

Thus, who calls God existence, implies that he is wise and living, whereas, from the point of view of concrete terms, it is in calling someone wise that we imply that he is living and a being. The reversal of hierarchies, of implications, thus seems to rely on a switch from abstract to concrete terms, or vice versa. But this need not be the case. Sometimes Thomas will say that being itself (ens commune) contains all perfections within it. How can the least informative, the most impoverished term become the richest and most informative one?

One way of understanding this is suggested by Thomas in his commentary on Boethius.{37} Consider the following as the formal structure of judgment:

(1) S is P.

This form of assertion comes down to saying that something that is of such and such a kind has such and such a quality. That is, it is as if both the subject term and the predicate term function as modifications or restrictions on the assertion of existence. To be is to be something or other; to be is to be in such or such a way. It is when ways of being (modi essendi) are looked upon as restrictions on existence, on the infinitive form of the copula, is, esse, that, as the term "infinitive" suggests, esse is taken to mean existence itself, unrestricted existence, the fullness of existence. Then the subject and predicate terms suggest (a) a restriction of being and (b) a perfection that is in some way already included in esse. Esse thus becomes a sort of dialectical limit, and if we imagine all the terms that can function as subject and predicate terms -- though with the restrictions mentioned earlier when we spoke of criteria of selecting divine names -- collapsing into the copula, as it were, then we see what Thomas means by saying that esse commune or ens commune is the best, in the sense of the least inadequate, name of God.{38}

But the truth of the matter is that the first cause is above being insofar as it is infinite existence itself. Being suggests that which finitely participates in existence, and this is what is proportionate to our intellect, whose object is that which is, as is said in On the Soul, Book Three. Hence, that alone is graspable by our intellect which has a whatness participating in existence. But the whatness of God is existence itself and thus he is above understanding.{39}

The names of God, fashioned as they are from terms devised to speak of creatures, enable us to make true statements about God but not to know what the God of whom we speak truly is.{40} This sounds paradoxical, it is paradoxical, but it is only a repetition of the point that we do not know the way or the how of the subsisting perfection God is. There is an ineradicable negative note in our knowledge of God. Our knowledge of God depends on what we know of things that need not have been, ourselves among them, yet the God we come to know is a necessary being, one whose existence is independent of his creation. These and other considerations lie behind the almost despairing confession of inadequacy involved in saying that God is being itself.

If we say that God is esse alone, we need not fall into the error of those who say that God is that universal existence whereby everything formally is. The being God is has this condition that nothing could be added to it. Hence by its very purity it is an esse distinct from all others, just as if there were a separately existing color it would differ by the very fact of its separation from a color which did not exist separately. That is why, in the development of the 9th Proposition in the Book of Causes, we read that the individuation of the first cause which is existence alone is due to its pure goodness. Common being (esse commune), however, just as it does not include addition in its understanding, does not exclude it either, for if that were the case nothing could be understood to be in which something more than being were understood. Similarly, even though he is common being, God need not lack other perfections and nobilities. Indeed God has the perfections which are in all the genera, because he is said to be perfect without measure. . . but he has them in a more excellent way than other things, because in him they are one while in others they are diverse.{41}

From first to last, then, Thomas is aware that "being," apart from the kind of consideration he is proposing, is the least informative term of all. The suggestion that by expressing no determinate mode of being, "being" somehow includes them all suggests another sense for the term. And it is another sense. As in the passage just quoted, Thomas is careful to distinguish the two senses lest we think that in calling something a being, we are thereby predicating God of it.

Magis Amicus Veritas

Once, when criticizing Plato and professing his reluctance to do so, Aristotle says that while Plato is a friend, truth is a dearer one. It would be wrong to regard Thomas's attitude toward Plato, or toward Aristotle, as due to some unexamined predilection or antipathy. If he tends to be generally favorable toward Aristotle, this is the result of an assessment of the arguments Aristotle offers for the positions he maintains. Like Augustine before him, Thomas, we can imagine, saw an affinity between the separate world of Ideas and the implication of the Christian vocation that we not store up treasure in this world. So far as predilections go, we might expect him to favor Plato. He finds Aristotle's realm of separated being to be an impoverished one, too sparsely populated. But it has the incalculable advantage that arguments of a sound sort are offered for the existence of such separate substances. And that, finally, is what counts philosophically. Of course Thomas's attitude toward both Greek philosophers is guided by his faith. Something that contradicts faith has got to be false. Needless to say, this conviction does not itself amount to a disproof of the offending philosophical claim. But this, along with many other things, will be taken up in the following chapter.

{1} See, for instance, Cornelio Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, 3rd ed. (Rome, 1963); and Partecipazione e causalità (Rome, 1960); L. B. Geiger La participation dans la philosophie de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris, 1942); R. J. Henle, St. Thomas and Platonism (The Hague, 1956).

{2} See R. Arnou, "Platonisme des Pères," Dictionnaire de thèologie catholique (Paris, 1929) pp. 2258-2392.

{3} See, for instance, Anton-Herman Chroust, Aristotle: New Light on His Life and on Some of His Lost Works, 2 vols. (London and Notre Dame, 1974).

{4} Contra academícos, III, xvii, 37.

{5} Bk. 8, Ch. 6.

{6} Bk. 19, Ch. 1.

{7} The City of God, Bk. 8, Ch. 10.

{8} Contra academicos, III, xx. 43.

{9} Ibid., III, xvii, 37.

{10} Eighty-three Diverse Questions, Question 36.

{11} See J. Durantel, Saint Thomas et le Pseudo-Denis (Paris, 1919),

{12} See n. 1, above.

{13} Porphyry was the biographer and student of Plotinus, the editor of the Enneads, and an opponent of Christianity. See Andrew Smith, Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague, 1974).

{14} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 85, a. 1.

{15} On Being and Essence, Ch. 3. See Joseph Bobik. Aquinas on Being and Essence (Notre Dame, 1965).

{16} On Being and Essence, Ch. 3.

{17} Ibid.

{18} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 84, a. 5.

{19} Ibid.

{20} Bonaventure, for example. See Ralph McInerny, Pilosophy From Augustine to Ockham (Notre Dame, 1970), p. 276 ff.; J. F. Quinn, The Historical Constitution of St. Bonaventure's Philosophy (Toronto, 1973).

{21} Summa theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 5.

{22} Ibid.

{23} Ibid.

{24} Question 11 of On Truth.

{25} In the edition of H. D. Saffrey, Sancti Thomae de Aquino Super Librum De Causis Expositio (Fribourg, 1954), see p. 38, line 14; pp. 67-68; p. 83, line 12; p. 104, lines 1-3.

{26} Ch. 4.

{27} Ch. 11.

{28} In librum beati Dionysii De divinis nominibus, proemium.

{29} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 13, a. 1, ad 2m.

{30} Summa contra gentiles,, I, 30.

{31} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 20, n. 1, ad 2m.

{32} Ibid., Ia, q. 3.

{33} Ibid. Ia, q. 13, a. 4.

{34} In librum beati Dionysii De divina nominibus, Ch. 5.

{35} Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Bk. 1, lectio 10, n 158.

{36} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 4, a. 2, ad 3m.

{37} Exposition of Boethius's De hebdomadibus, lectio 2.

{38} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 13, a. 11.

{39} See Saffrey, ed. cit. (n. 25, above), p. 47.

{40} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 13, a. 12.

{41} On Being and Essence, Ch. 5.

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