Today’s Aquinas: the Good vs. the good

Today’s Aquinas: the Good vs. the good February 23, 2015

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

And now we get to something meaty: the analogy of being.  We say that a statement is the truth when it corresponds with reality; we say that God is the Truth.  We say that an act of generosity or charity is good; we say that God is the Good.  We say that a painting or a person is a “beauty”; we say that God is the Beautiful.  But are we really using the terms in the same way in each case?

Thomas answers that of course we aren’t.  But we aren’t speaking irresponsibly, either; there is a connection between how we say that God is true and how we say that a statement is true:

The third point is that names applied to God and to other beings are not predicated either quite univocally or quite equivocally. They cannot be predicated univocally, because the definition of what is said of a creature is not a definition of what is said of God. Things predicated univocally must have the same definition.

Two terms are univocal if they mean the same thing, refer to the same object: they speak with one voice.  The seasonal names “Fall” and “Autumn” are univocal, because they both mean the season between Summer and Winter.

Nor are these names predicated in all respects equivocally. In the case of fortuitous equivocation, a name is attached to an object that has no relation to another object bearing the same name. Hence the reasoning in which we engage about one cannot be transferred to the other. But the names predicated of God and of other things are attributed to God according to some relation He has to those things; and in their case the mind ponders what the names signify. This is why we can transfer our’ reasoning about other things to God. Therefore such terms are not predicated altogether equivocally about God and about other things, as happens in fortuitous equivocation.

Two terms are equivocal if they have quite different meanings; they speak with equal voices, and each demands to be heard.  “My dear” and “My deer” are as different as Mrs. Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and woe to Santa if he confuses them.

Now, we clearly aren’t using the word “truth” univocally when we speak of God as Truth vs. the truth of a statement.  But we aren’t being equivocal either; there is a relationship between the two terms, and the meaning of one leads us to the meaning of the other. And this Thomas calls analogy:

Consequently they are predicated according to analogy, that is, according to their proportion to one thing. For, from the fact that we compare other things with God as their first origin, we attribute to God such names as signify perfections in other things. This clearly brings out the truth that, as regards the assigning of the names, such names are primarily predicated of creatures, inasmuch as the intellect that assigns the names ascends from creatures to God. But as regards the thing signified by the name, they are primarily predicated of God, from whom the perfections descend to other beings.

Here’s an example of an analogical term: when someone explains to us the causes of a situation, we say that he has “cast light on the subject”.  This doesn’t mean that he brought a flashlight; rather, we mean that he helped us to see more clearly, that is, to understand.  Thomas frequently refers to light in just this way, referring to the “natural light of reason” or the “divine light”.

Now, we ascend to an understanding of God, insofar as we are able, by contemplating the perfections of the things around us and recognizing that they all have their source in God, who must possess these perfections in a more eminent way.  In this way, we ascribe Beauty to God by analogy with natural beauty.  But what we mean by God’s Beauty isn’t quite what we mean by natural beauty; it’s something greater: something we now see as through a glass darkly, but then will see clearly.

photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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