Today’s Aquinas: The Chicken or the Egg

Today’s Aquinas: The Chicken or the Egg February 14, 2016

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.
Today’s post is from Chapter 68: “The Effects Produced By God.”

Finally, it's time to move on from consideration of the Trinity to a new topic: the effects produced by the Trinity.

After considering the truths which pertain to the unity of the divine essence and to the Trinity of persons, we turn to a study of the effects produced by the Trinity. The first effect wrought by God in things is existence itself, which all other effects presuppose, and on which they are based.

As Thomas spent many chapters explaining at the beginning of the Compendium, everything that is depends on God for its existence because He is the First Cause. That's how his proofs of God's existence work, by working backwards from things that come to be to that which is eternal. Now he's going to begin looking at things from the other side: how do things other than God come to be? And he begins with a meditation on being, existence itself, very narrowly considered. An apple tree has its apple-tree-ness from God; but we aren't looking here at its apple-tree-ness, but only and solely at the fact that it exists.

As usual, Thomas begins with an example of a basic principle: things acquire a quality from something that has it to give:

Anything that exists in any way must necessarily have its origin from God. In all things that are arranged in orderly fashion, we find universally that what is first and most perfect in any order, is the cause of whatever follows in that order.

That is, you can order things by how well they possess a given quality; and you'll find that those that possess it to a lesser degree receive it from the thing at the head of the line. Thomas now gives a rather misleading example:

Thus fire, which is hot in the highest degree, is the cause of heat in all other heated bodies.

By "fire", Thomas isn't speaking of the flame on a match, or in a fire pit; he's speaking of the element of fire, a component of matter, that gives hot things their hotness. It is this elemental fire that is hot in the highest degree; hot things are more or less hot because of a greater or lesser admixture of elemental fire. The terms are archaic, but if you think of it in terms of energy rather than fire it's an astute observation.

Moving on to a less fraught example,

Imperfect objects are always found to have their origin from perfect things; seeds, for instance, come from animals and plants.

An apple seed is imperfect in that it is an apple tree in potential but not in actuality. It has the potency to grow into an apple tree, but it lacks that perfection. And where did the seed come from? A mature apple tree. (Thomas, apparently, would argue that the chicken came first.)

And since God is the first cause and the source of all perfections in created things, He must be the cause of the existence of each created thing—existence being the most basic and fundamental perfection a thing can have:

But, as we proved above, God is the first and most perfect Being. Therefore He must be the cause of being in all things that have being.

Again, this is no surprise at this point in the story. Thomas is simply saying, God is the source of all that is good in the apple tree; and so just as He is the source of the tree's tree-ness, and ability to bear fruit, so He is the source of the tree's existence, narrowly considered. Thomas is abstracting away everything about the tree except the fundamental fact that it exists, that it has being; and this being it must have from God.

To put it another way,

Again, whatever has some perfection by participation, is traced back, as to its principle and cause, to what possesses that perfection essentially.

Suppose I have some homespun cloth, and I dye it blue. I now have blue cloth, but the cloth isn't blue in its essence; it was still perfectly good cloth when it was its natural color. It received its blueness from the indigo dye, which is blue in its essence. Thomas reverts to elemental fire again:

Thus molten iron has its incandescence from that which is fire by its essence.

But God's essence is His existence; He is existence itself. So God must be the cause of existence in all things other than Himself:

We showed above that God is existence itself; hence existence belongs to Him in virtue of His essence, but pertains to all other things by way of participation. The essence of no other thing is its existence, for being that is absolute and per se subsistent cannot be more than one, as was brought out above. Therefore God must be the cause of existence of all things that are.

photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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