Today’s Aquinas: Infinity and Imperfection, or God and the Oaks

Today’s Aquinas: Infinity and Imperfection, or God and the Oaks December 15, 2014

We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

Two imperfect birds.  But they'll grow.
Two imperfect birds. But they’ll grow.

Just because something is infinite doesn’t mean that it is infinitely perfect—depending on how you define “infinite” and how you define “perfect”.  I can imagine an infinite patchwork quilt, infinitely long and infinitely wide, that contains an infinite number of stitching errors.  It might be perfectly huge, and yet by no means perfect.

But as Thomas explained in Chapter 19 of Compendium Theologiae, God’s infinity isn’t a purely spatial or mathematical or quantitative infinity.  A spatial infinity is an infinity of length; a quantitative infinity an infinity of number.  God’s infinity isn’t an infinity of anything, it’s simply pure unboundedness, pure lack of of any kind of limit.  And so in Chapter 20 Thomas continues,

Although the infinity discerned in quantities is imperfect, the infinity predicated of God indicates supreme perfection in Him. The infinity that is in quantities pertains to matter, in the sense that matter lacks limits.

Matter lacks limits?  But I just said that God is pure unboundedness.  Yes.  When Thomas says that matter lacks limits, he’s speaking in terms of prime matter, that metaphysical “zero” of being, which is pure receptivity of form.  Any material object is the result of the application of form to prime matter; the form limits the matter.  But for all that, the unlimited nature of prime matter is a quantitative or spatial kind of infinity, not pure unboundedness.

But what do we mean by imperfection?

Imperfection occurs in a thing for the reason that matter is found in a state of privation. On the other hand, perfection comes exclusively from form.

In other words, a thing is imperfect if it isn’t fully what it is supposed to be, according to its substantial form.  An oak sapling isn’t a perfect oak tree—it lacks its full growth.  A mature, healthy oak tree, on the other hand is exactly what it should be: a perfect oak.  It has realized its substantial form.

Consequently, since God is infinite because He is exclusively form or act and has no admixture of matter or potentiality, His infinity pertains to His supreme perfection.

But God is pure act; He is exactly who He is, as he told Moses: I Am Who Am.  Because God’s infinity is not a quantitative infinity, is not an unformed infinity, there can be no lack of form in Him, and hence no imperfection.

Thomas continues,

This can also be gathered from a consideration of other things. Although in one and the same being that evolves from imperfect to perfect, something imperfect precedes the perfect stage, as, for example, the boy is prior to the man, everything imperfect must derive its origin from what is perfect. The child is not begotten except by a man and the seed does not receive existence except from an animal or a plant.

Everything that can grow, that can be perfected over time, must have come from something like itself.  Or, in other words, the chicken came first.  The egg is the expression of a pair of mature chickens, and will lead in time to another mature chicken.

Accordingly that which is by nature prior to all other things and sets them all in motion, must be more perfect than all the rest.

And consequently, God, the First Cause, must be more perfect than everything created by God.  And there’s an obvious corollary to this that Thomas will bring out in the next chapter: all of the perfections exhibited by the things of this world have their source in God.

photo credit: Bev Goodwin via photopin cc

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