Author: Stephen Theron  





In the following we wish to highlight the openness of the positions defended by Thomas Aquinas in metaphysics and to claim that it is this openness, or "open-endedness", which is his work's most enduring or classical quality. The focus is upon his fundamental considerations about God. Here, at the beginning, he is explicit that he is discussing what he and his contemporaries call God, i.e. the discussion is specified as theological. Thus the Five Ways all conclude to something of which he says "and this we call God" (Ways Four and Five) or which "all call, name or understand to be God" (Ways Three, Two and One respectively).[1] Already here the method entails a certain taking of distance from any specific religion, even from religious praxis as such, as is proper to the free play of theoria. Aquinas, after all, derives religio, the term, from ligare, to bind. We can add that religion (the "we", the medieval community beyond the walls of universities or studia) "calls" a certain philosophical ultimate God, Deus.

On just this point "Thomism" is in our times often called in question as bona fide philosophy, viz. on the point of the working principle that reason will never go against faith, that any such contradiction indicates rational error. The openness needed for the discovery of truth is here lacking, comments the theologian John Macquarrie.[2] It is therefore important not to overlook such distinctions as the above, between God and what we might call God, for example, which are genuinely present in the text and mind of the author. Moreover, one is not obliged to take Thomas as one with the Thomists in maintaining that philosophy cannot contradict faith. He might just as well be taken as saying that we will never be asked to believe something unreasonable. This cuts the other way, rather, pointing to the need for development in the interpretation of doctrine, exemplified indeed in his own scholarly praxis, which is thus shown to be as dialectical as Hegel later claimed all philosophy had to be. In theology the theme was later thematized in Newman's great work and was in fact the very point upon which Newman espoused the Roman position in religion.[3]




The cardinal thesis of Thomism is often taken to be the necessary identity of essence and esse in the First Principle. This thesis, in Aquinas's presentation, is one with that of the divine simplicity, which it explicates. For Aquinas[4] esse and simplicity  are both primarily negative conceptions. Non possumus scire esse Dei.[5] They are also stated to be the first and second divine attribute respectively.[6] Esse, as a verb or action-word, has the force of act. So it is not well translated by "existence", which connotes veritas propositionis more than it does actus essendi, while "being" is a yet more unfocussed term for the uninitiated.

So we should recall firstly that according to Thomas we know neither the divine essence nor this actus essendi with which it is identified.[7] We know only the fact, the veritas propositionis or truth of the proposition, if we have come so far, that Deus est. Both subject and predicate are unknown to us, but if we understood them both perfectly, "knew" them, we would see, as we now infer, that they are identical,[8] i.e. that "Deus est" is equivalent to a hypothetical proposition "Deus est esse" in which the S and P term would have the same supposition (suppositio), albeit according to the different formal and material manner of predicate and subject terms respectively. To illustrate this difference (between knowing God and knowing what God can be said to be), I can infer that the owner of a particular car is the killer of a given victim without knowing either this owner (who he is) or how he or she killed the victim. There is a difference, that is, between inferring and directly understanding,  apprehensio, which is the first of the three acts or instruments (organa) of knowing in terms of the Aristotelian logical theory taken over by St. Thomas.

Applying this to the idea that God is concluded to by Aquinas as being that which is "self-explanatory" (see below) although, essentially, we are unable to understand the explanation, we find that no character  whatever has been given thus far to this object to which our thought concludes. We have only established that the ultimate principle explains itself ( in some unanalysed sense of this notion), i.e. we have not ourselves explained it; the notion rather signals our abandonment of any attempt to do so. It explains itself as to its nature and its being indifferently, since both of these, it has been argued, must be one.

To illustrate further the generality or open-endedness of this claim one may affirm that exactly the same claim can be made for the professed atheist J.M.E. McTaggart´s infinite "Absolute", which is an impersonal unity (not merely a community) of personal spirits, each finite in a defined sense which is compatible with the identity of each, nonetheless, with the infinite, Hegel´s all-pervasive concept of "identity in difference".[9] There too, in McTaggart, we do not know or understand how this, to which it is concluded, can be so.

Secondly, in illustration, for the attribute of absolute simplicity, in Aquinas, no more is claimed than this identity of essence and esse. So it too can apply equally to any candidate for the position of being ultimate and "absolute". The paradoxes are no more glaring in the one case than in the other, or maybe in any other (One might want to say that the Chestertonian defence of paradox rests willy-nilly upon a previous Hegelian moment in intellectual history just as Hegelianism rests willy-nilly upon the Christian experience, as Hegel acknowledged. Indeed he claimed, thus far, like any theologian or Fleet Street journalist, to interpret it). Thus simplicity in God, for Aquinas, co-exists with a plurality of attributes, imposed indeed according to our manner of abstractive thinking more than in themselves, but above all it co-exists with a Trinity of persons constituting real relations. For Aquinas God must be simple with the same necessity as God is necessarily this Trinity, not more, not less. Indeed it has to be the same necessity, viz. God himself and not some "law" outside of him, not even of his "nature" except by a very distant analogy indeed. Aquinas offers the beginning merely of an understanding in terms of a more perfect identity between the terms of a more perfect processio. "By how much more perfectly something proceeds (ad intra), by that much is it one with that from which it comes."[10] Aquinas´s method, keeping the "revealed" apart from the "philosophical", obscures this all-purpose compatibility of divine simplicity somewhat. Hegel, by contrast, felt bound to attempt integration, this being, in his eyes, the project of philosophy itself.[11] We may recall G. Grisez´s criticism that Aquinas´s treatise on the finis ultimus is "not well integrated" with his moral theology.

Aquinas´s difficulties are not less, though, than those encountered by McTaggart in wanting to show that his Absolute is a perfect unity (effectively the import of simplicitas, not otherwise good for much in terms of value), that is, a whole without composition or parts distinct from it. Thus McTaggart claims that each person, as cognitive or conscious, possesses the unity of the whole within him- or herself.[12]

So a simplicity concerning which we can judge but which we cannot apprehend cannot thus far be claimed to be more truly exemplified in the one system or hypothesis than in the other. The Allah of Islam, rather, would seem to have the edge here. As a corollary, too, one would be justified in claiming that any valid version of Anselm´s Ontological Argument, should there be one, would similarly establish the existence of the most perfect entity conceivable without being able to say anything about the character of this "absolute", i.e. not anything more. The McTaggartian pluri-unity might embody perfection more perfectly than a Trinitarian conception. Of course we might still go along with Thomas´s deductions of at least some or one of the attributes, such as love, rather than attribute perversities to this unknown Absolute, but that is another matter since we would be guided here by our ethical preferences merely.[13] In general, the identity of essence and esse in God does not mean that God is a pure contentless act of esse ("existential" Thomism), since we know nothing as to what this divine esse might be and even the Catholic doctrine of analogy teaches that unlikeness of divine to created esse (Fourth Lateran Council) will or must be greater than likeness, so that anything is possibly thinkable. The divine esse might have not much to do with existence as we know it at all. The still, small voice heard by Elijah, after all, might have been really small and not just small because coming from far away.

So the identity of essence and existence in the necessary simplicity of the first principle means no more than that here there is a limit to explanation, to the appropriateness of giving a "reason of being". There are no further reasons. The identity does not of itself mean, therefore, that the principle "explains itself" or need do so, is "self-explanatory". Such a reduction suggests a gratuitous rationalism. No concept of explanation need be thought to apply here at all, or what else does the primacy of being over essence mean? We might say, with McTaggart (and Wittgenstein), that explanations apply within the universe, not to the universe as a whole, not to God. God has no need to explain himself.

We would anyhow need, in addition, in view of the Kantian criticism, confirmation of the Anselmian Cartesian view of existence as an indispensable perfection. This after all is not self-evident, witness also neoplatonism, Nicholas of Cusa or many statements of Hegel:


The same stricture is applicable to those who define God to be mere Being; a definition not a whit better than that of the Buddhists, who make God to be Nought[14]


The question here would be whether Hegel simply fails to achieve the intuition which Thomas expresses thus:


aliquid cui non fit additio, potest intelligi dupliciter. - Uno modo, ut de ratione eius sit quod non fiat ei additio; sicut de ratione animalis irrationalis est ut sit sine ratione. - Alio modo intelligitur aliquid cui non fit additio, quia non est de ratione eius quod sibi fit additio, sicut animal commune est sine ratione, quia non est de ratione animalis communis ut habeat rationem, sed nec de ratione eius est ut careat ratione. Primo igitur modo, esse sine additione est esse divinum; secundo modo esse sine additione est esse commune.[15]


Here Aquinas is defining terms before making the substantive claim that


ipsum esse est perfectissimum omnium; comparatur enim ad omnia ut actus... actualis omnium rerum et etiam ipsarum formarum.[16]


This though involves him, in his next sentence, in the doubtful idea that "things acquire existence"[17], which might suggest that his main claim, of esse as perfectissimum, the basic Anselmian posture, should be differently supported rather. If, with Hegel, we think first of actuality (Wirklichkeit, as in Frege too) rather than of esse (these two notions however, actualitas and esse, are identified by Aquinas), then


Actuality is the unity, become immediate, of essence with existence,[18]


something which is easier to see. For things do not "acquire" actuality (as Thomas says in effect of esse) since it is only as actuality that they are and are, as we say, actually things. Esse cannot be receptum since there is nothing to receive it. One has absolutized a metaphor here. But nor is the other Scholastic option, also though allowed by Aquinas at its proper place, viz. that forma dat esse, any less inappropriate. Actuality, again, is the unity, become immediate, of essence and existence. If just this is what it immediately is then there is no actualitas omnium formarum, no actuality of essence itself. Contrariwise, existence by itself, not united thus immediately with an essence, is no more than an abstraction. Nonetheless, for Hegel too, utter actuality lies in their identification in the Absolute.

But it does not follow from this identification in the Absolute, and the Absolute´s consequent necessity, logically speaking, that we should see just esse as "most perfect of all (perfections)". Aquinas himself, we have just seen, argues for this position independently of the original identification, on the other ground of simplicity, non-derivability being a species of non-compositeness. Thus Hegel, for example, sees the divine perfection rather in an "absolute subjectivity", and it is as "self-knowing" or "thinking itself" (Aristotle's conception) that an Absolute is deduced as "absolutely actual."[19]This perfection of the divinity though, he thinks, has only come to light under Christianity, "the absolute religion".

It belongs of course to Aquinas's method to establish divine perfection independently of Christianity, not only as a procedure of apologetics (as in the Summa contra Gentes) but also, by way of distinction, within sacred theology itself. The question here though is whether that perfection can be identified in advance as esse or as anything else, so that the posterior revelation will then be simply filling out the content of what is already understood generically. Love, as in "God is love", will then be as if a species merely of an esse ("God is esse") viewed logically as more fundamental (than love) whereas metaphysically or in reality love will be the true face of this esse, as it were its "essence". This could not, incidentally, be the case with goodness since the divine goodness is for Thomas a mere ens rationis, being the same real esse as presented to will.[20] There is a definite possibility therefore of thinking of love as more fundamental as a "category" than being, as we in fact find in McTaggart's philosophy or, maybe, that of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. There can arise a suspicion that the ultimate mysteries have been held without warrant to (and thus distorted by) the specifics of our predication system. Hegel's dialectic, by contrast, begins with being as the simplest starting-point and passes well beyond it, through essence to the notion and within the latter to knowledge and finally, in McTaggart's hands, to love. That for McTaggart it is a matter of indifference whether we name the Absolute as God, a putative being, might reinforce the point here. Is he, again, more or less of an atheist than one who shall have said of himself that who sees him sees the Father or that who does a thing to the least of men does it to him, reckoned as God-man? Put differently, we see that this dilemma of theism or atheism depends upon a universe of existents, of substances, where "each thing is itself and not another thing".

So here again we feel the pressure to evaluate these old systems ethically, which is in fact what Hegel understands as an effect of revelation. The latter, he thinks, must be brought into philosophy, all the formal and procedural distinctions notwithstanding, as we see from his frequent allusions to Christianity in the Logic. E. Gilson in effect makes the same point, of continuity, but as a historian. For Hegel though history itself, seen from the absolute viewpoint, is, while so contingent in appearance, really a symbolic manifestation of a dialectical series misapprehended as temporal, the details of which we grope after. This discovery of the dialectic is itself a fruit of humanity's confrontation with a sacred history, he finds reason to think, however "immanent" his final analysis of the sacred.

Despite these more mystical perspectives, however, Hegel cautions us that


It does no good to put on airs against the Ontological proof, as it is called, and against Anselm thus defining the Perfect. the argument is one latent in every unsophisticated mind, and recurs in every philosophy, even against its wish.[21]


This is Hegel's response, mild enough, to the Kantian criticisms, though such a handsome admission might have been made by Aquinas himself while also, mildly, rejecting Anselm. When Hegel adds though that the argument recurs in every philosophy "even... without its knowledge" he concurs in what we are urging here with respect to Aquinas.

It has been well shown, anyway, that Hegel's own dialectic does not begin with what we stigamtized above as a merely abstract being or with its correlate, nothing, two notions he identifies. It begins with becoming, and only thus does it have the movement within itself to be (become) a dialectic, i.e. a ceaseless refusal of conceptual absolutization. Becoming too, all the same,


taken at its best on its own ground is an extremely poor term: it needs to grow in depth and weight of meaning.[22]


So Hegel writes elsewhere that


One has acquired great insight when one realises that being and not-being are abstractions without truth and that the first truth is Becoming alone.[23]


In the Encyclopaedia, at Section 88, accordingly, he praises Heraclitus's dictum that "Being no more is than not-Being" as an instance of "the real refutation of one system (sc. the Eleatic) by another", as if seeming to reject his otherwise omni-operative notion of synthesis here, though we might in general stand by a claim that "real refutation" as notion tends to be assimilated (aufgehoben indeed) to that of synthesis. The dictum refutes as showing that "both abstractions are alike untenable". What Heraclitus does is to "exhibit the dialectical movement in its principle." As Gadamer explains it:


Whoever asks how movement starts in Being (sc. if the dialectic is wrongly assumed to begin there) should admit that in raising this question he has abstracted from the movement of thought within which he finds himself raising it.


Pure being or pure nothing are abstractions made prior to the discovery of the first truth. It would though be a crass error to identify such Becoming in Hegel with real time and change. The movement of the dialectic is not temporal (history symbolizes or depicts, narrates it merely), since its whole purpose is to transcend and thus negate the temporal in favour of the Absolute and infinite. Time, indeed, is one of the "moments" or categories to be overcome, like causality, finite categories serving at the surface of everyday essentialist common-sense merely, not giving insight into reality in itself.[24]

The true and supra-temporal interpretation of dialectical becoming is clearly set forth by McTaggart in the penultimate chapter, on the dialectic and time, of his Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic of 1896. One might add, though this is soft-pedalled by McTaggart, that Hegel's ideal is to be found in his conception of the consuming life or fire of the Trinity, as well say in the essential restlessness of Thought (thinking itself, says Aristotle) as such. In his Commentary on Hegel's Science of Logic of 1910 McTaggart criticized Hegel's adoption of the term Becoming here, as due to his wishing to claim Heraclitus as fore-runner, precisely because it might suggest an endorsement of temporality at odds with the whole system of absolute idealism as conceived by Hegel. Regarding the Trinity we have to add that Hegel as idealist is comparatively indifferent to the usual worries as to whether the Christian conceptions so central to his philosophy "correspond" to an empirical reality or not. This is to seek Christ, with the Crusaders, at the empty sepulchre in the earthly Jerusalem.




We return though to the self-explanatory. This term was used by Abbot Christopher Butler when defending a version of Aquinas's Third Way for knowing that God exists.[25] Butler refers here to "the atheist's miracle", whereby he means that on any atheist view experience and reality "miraculously" have no explanation, such as only a recognizably theistic view can offer. The case of Spinoza might have given him pause here, since people cannot agree whether Spinoza's system, which offers a final explanation in Butler's sense, is atheistic or theistic. Against the facile charge of pantheism Hegel suggested that Spinoza's system should rather be called "acosmism", since he explains (away) the world by saying that only God exists and


A philosophy which affirms that God and God alone is, should not be stigmatized as atheistic.[26]


Perhaps Dom Butler would have agreed. John Finnis, anyhow, takes up the argument for the self-explanatory in section X.2 of his book on Aquinas, Aquinas, entitled "Towards Explanation".[27] After repeating here the thesis that esse is the act of all acts he asserts that in our experience "there is nothing that exists simply in virtue of being the sort of thing it is." Any object of investigation can therefore be postulated, "spoken of", as not existing, now or at some other time. This means that however long the explanatory (causal, "whether taken diachronically or synchronically") chain is made to be the universe of our experience is "radically under-explained".

Finnis finds "the one reasonable inference" here to be that


since there are these realities whose existing needs explanation, there must be a reality whose existing does not need explanation... such that what it is includes that it is.


He has introduced here the idea of "needs" as a more than rational postulate, one that is rationalist rather, though the position is common to Aquinas and McTaggart (omne ens est verum is the relevant tag), even, in fact, to Nietzsche in so far as he claims (in The Gay Science) to justify his version of "the eternal return" as the rational explanation of everything. Finnis's claim, however, is based upon the apparent self-evidence (to him) of the universe's not being everything.

Once again, however, awareness that there must be an explanation and that we have not got it does not itself, could not itself give the explanation, quite apart from the fact that one can question the awareness. Thus how does even God "explain" the smell of snow as enjoyed by young children? No explanation could, in fact, measure up to the experience. So why should just God be so "self-explanatory"? For that ultimate, self-explanatory reality here postulated there is no presumption that it will be the personal God of theism. Even Aristotle's characterization of it as "thought thinking itself" leaves open the question whether our own intellects are separable from that.

Aquinas's formula, we are claiming, is even more agnostic. To say that the ultimate principle exists necessarily is simply to say over again that reality is totally explicable. Metaphysical and logical necessity, that is, are found to merge after all. On such a ground, for example, one might reject a "naturalist" account of the genesis of explanatory reasoning in terms of evolution merely as circular, a "contradiction in performance."[28]

That something is necessary one may well claim. But if one is prepared to specify this necessity, as being, for example, a personal Trinity, without being able to show the necessity of this specification then, in the area of debate, one has cut the ground from under one's own feet, philosophically speaking at least. For people may then come with other candidates for the position and on other rational grounds rather than simply "revelation". Admission of revelation, its possibility, that is, alters the picture. For what would need to be revealed would be ipso facto not self-explanatory or, rather, anything whatever could fill in the blank space and just therefore be dubbed self-explanatory, simply as first or ultimate, thus depriving the epithet of the required "clout", differentiating the position from atheism, say. The claim only functions, that is to say, where one believes one can supply a principle of self-explanation as such, i.e. one which is not simultaneously something else (aliquid cui non fit additio). But this is no more than an impossibly reified abstraction.

So one's original conclusion, in so far as pretending to be to the existence of something specific, such as the all-perfect one and simple being, is exposed as non-coercive, having only a show of rationalist rigour. The principle argued for is at best an open structure, not specific enough to be called God. In a word, if the Absolute is held to be a Trinity then it must be granted that it could without contradiction be some other thing at least prima facie equally at variance with simplicity, such as McTaggart's plurality of spirits in supra-communal unity (like to the Trinity in that). The only way to avoid this would be to say that the necessity of God as Trinity could not be denied without contradiction, but this is not only less orthodox than our exegesis of Thomism but also most likely false.

Does it anyhow follow that a thing "might not have existed" if its existence is not included explicitly in or identified with its essence as we know it? Here again, for Aquinas, we do not know the essence of the humblest insect secundum se, but only through the accidents. So there might be an unsuspected necessity there! Further, he attributes necessity not only to the First Principle, but to angels, the human soul and prime matter.[29] Intuitions can be flexible here. We might in fact as well argue in reverse from a thing's necessity or eternity that its existence, that of the archangel Gabriel say, is therefore "essential" to it, necessary, even when we do not otherwise know this, e.g. if we believed the world to be eternal. That Aquinas does not himself take this road depends entirely upon his believing that he has established the reality of a principle transcending the world.

The world, of course, stands outside any causal chain within the world. Nor do we see the world's necessary existence, but then neither do we see God's, we have been urging here. We merely postulate and indeed absolutize and personalize it, saying that there must (necessarily) be a necessary existence such that it is, moreover, simply that. Non aliquo modo est, but est, est (Augustine). This much Aquinas plainly concedes:


esse dupliciter dicitur. - Uno modo significat actum essendi;... Primo igitur modo, accipiendo esse, non possumus scire esse Dei, sicut nec eius essentiam,...[30]


We do not even know if it is possible, logically or conceptually, that a thing's essence can be its existence, however much our demand for explanation might seem to include this. There may be other possibilities, not as yet conceived, just as this identification which we are discussing was not made from the beginning and might eventually have to give way or undergo some total shift in significance.

Actuality, again, is a broader and less dogmatic term than existence. Thus Aquinas himself says at times, suggestively, that God is pure form while thought (nous) is often, like the Plotinian "One", contradistinguished against existence (me on, not ouk on).

Finnis's "reasonable inference", therefore, is merely posited, not inferred. For one would always have to explain the self-explanatoriness, just as much as one has to explain anything else, and it might turn out to be impossible. Normal self-explanatoriness, after all, means that a person gives a (propositional) explanation of himself, the reasons and causes of his actions and sufferings, but here what is meant is that the person or supra-person is himself or herself the explanation in his or her own right. There is, incidentally, a similar difficulty about Kant's description of people as themselves ends. An end is either propositional/intentional or an entity one wants to get, not a person. The mere consideration that a person should not be made a means to some ulterior end does not give ground for declaring him actually to be an end himself. In fact he is not made to be even a means; rather, some act of manipulation of him is the means. Kant means that we should not perform acts of manipulation, as they then come to be called, as means to ends not consented to or known of by the person thus manipulated.

In fact God could not be self-explanatory. He could only, like the smell of snow we mentioned, set a terminus to explanation.

So in fact this self-explanatoriness is not itself explained to us. Again, we know neither the esse nor the essence (claimed to be one and the same) of God. This explanation in terms of self-explanatoriness only exceeds other explanations in its abstractness or lack of concrete reality. But that an unknown thing's necessary being is more plausible than the (to begin with) unknown necessity of some being otherwise known to us is by no means self-evident, nor even itself plausible. We might ourselves, as in McTaggart's system, be necessary beings. Here we touch on the ambiguity of "closer to" (intimior) in Augustine's "There is one closer to me than I am to myself". Much hinges here on the notion of infinity, discussed by Hegel mainly in response to Spinoza's usage of the term:


The True or Affirmative infinite, according to Hegel, cannot represent the mere negation of the Finite, since this would involve a simple contradiction. Being exclusive of, and beyond the Finite, it would itself be finite.[31]


For Aquinas this is why all created being is analogous, adding nothing to God's unique actus essendi (of which we, therefore, can only speak analogously as speaking in terms taken from the finite). Hegel though, here, rather recalls Parmenides. The infinite "must represent a kind of union", superseding the usual "uneasy see-saw or self-cancelling union between finite and infinite",


which is not an external bringing together of these aspects, nor an improper connection contrary to their nature, in which opposed, separated, mutually independent entities are incompatibly combined. Rather must each element be in itself the unity, and this only as an overcoming of self, in which neither element has the prerogative, either as regards being-in-itself or determinate positive being. As shown previously, finitude exists only as a passing beyond itself: the infinite, its own other, is therefore contained in itself. And similarly infinity only exists as the going beyond the finite: it therefore contains its other, and so is in itself its own other. The finite is not overcome by the infinite as by an externally existent might, but it is its own infinity whereby it transcends itself.[32]


This, pace Findlay ("confusing and repetitive talk"), is precisely the account of the Absolute, which is thus not exclusively what is infinite, given by McTaggart. Being, for Parmenides too, was infinite and had no parts. This is the prelude to the study of consciousness and/or cognition found in both Hegel and Aristotle. It is in fact esse which is cognitive and, thus, thought or thinking (when Gilson says "Man is not a thinker; man is a knower" he wishes merely to safeguard thought's identity with the real, less ambiguously asserted in Hegel).

Spinoza argued for his God from what might be seen as an extensionalist conception of infinity undeniable without self-contradiction, while for Aquinas infinity is seen in terms of attributes or perfections not inherently subject to limit, such as being, goodness, beauty, power, mercy, but unlike squareness, healthiness or, maybe, justice.[33] A thing may be absolutely but not infinitely square. Hegel took the superficially revolutionary step, latent in the older texts, of relating infinity to cognitive consciousness, to thinking. He could quote in support of his view the Aristotelian anima est (quodammodo) omnia. The whole tradition is thus a reversal of the eighteenth century adage, proudly placed by G.E. Moore at the head of his Principia Ethica (1903), viz. "Each thing is itself and not another thing", to which we might reply, in conciliatory vein, "Yes, it is; yet then again it isn't." One recalls Bentham's "Each to count for one and none for more than one", to which a Kantian or Christian, while not denying fairness,  might counter, "Each to count for all and none for less than all," this deeper truth remaining through and beyond all distribution. Similarly Augustine's saying, like St. Paul's "In him we live and move and have our being" or sayings such as "I in them and they in me" or "members one of another" transcend Moore's tag. Treatment of sympathy and substitution, incidentally, belongs in philosophy or it belongs nowhere.

The world as a whole does not explain itself. There must be an explanation. From these premises one concludes to the self-explanatory, which, since not seen (that, certainly, is clear), "dwells in light inaccessible", transcends experience. Transcendence, as also transcendentally good, might however take an initiative, so that a man might say "He that has seen me has seen the Father", "I and the Father are one". Talk of an intiative, however, is more systemically thought of as narrative representing necessity.

Behind such traditions, that is to say, lies hidden infinity as consciousness, as defined by Hegel, implicit in Aristotle, explicit in some oriental thought. Man is God, God is man. Aquinas himself allows hypostatic union with a plurality of human natures, so why not all?[34] Thus from the premises mentioned one might conclude, not that there is a self-explanatory personal being (which we have found totally mystifying) but that the world is misperceived (which is merely surprising). The contradictions inherent in notions of time and matter could then be conceded. They would then be misperceptions or, less harshly, symbolic ways of apprehending reality (in fact nothing else is consistent with a purely naturalistic evolutionary paradigm, itself by the same reasoning symbolic, even though reason itself necessarily transcends the picture as itself originating the symbolism, though why it does so we are not obliged to know). In any case Hegel will radicalize everything finite as ipso facto "untrue", just as every predication is in a sense false as identifying two disparate things. What occurs is a kind of voluntary estrangement of the Absolute Idea occurring, as I interpret him, by analogy (but only by analogy) with the Trinity, as processio ad extra derivative upon the processio ad intra, why, it is hard to say (on this point the Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki said he could not become a Christian, not seeing why God needed to make a world. Bonum est diffusivum sui is not so easily seen to meet the case either). The error here is that nothing can be extra to or "ontologically discontinuous" with the actually infinite. The postulate of an analogy of being concedes as much without saying so. For the same reason, i.e. it means the same, omne ens est verum, i.e. knowable to spirit. The world is not an alternative pole to God, to the Absolute. Nor is self this, if we remember Augustine's saying cited above, the meaning of which gives us the true self or atman.

Spinoza sees not merely all objects but especially conscious beings as modes of the infinite, "contractions" in Nicholas of Cusa's parallel system. The thought is echoed, mutatis mutandis, by the Thomist L.-M. Régis:


Intentional being is not a sort of logical being invented by human reason, a sort of hypothesis to account for facts. It is a creature of God, intended to expand the limited being of some of His creatures so that they might, without being God... become the whole universe or one or other of its aspects (cf. Quodl. VIII 4c; ST Ia 56, 2 ad 3um; 80, 1c).[35]


Why not become rather God or one another then, it is logical to ask? Aquinas, anyhow, had said as much as is said here in making each of his angels created with the species of all things within him, a priori omniscient, a kind of cipher for a future Hegelianism not captured by the Averroistic idea of a common intellect, which he opposed. As McTaggart will say:


the unity... has no reality distinct from the individuals (i.e. considered each by each)... somehow in them... whole meaning of the differentiation of the unity is its being differentiated into that particular plurality, [36]


i.e. no one is contingent, and here Leslie Armour comments that McTaggart's "community of timeless loving spirits appears to be an expansion of the Trinity"[37], something the latter would never have conceded, seeing such Trinitarian thought as at most prefiguring his own view.

For Aquinas the angels are not strictly timeless, they do not have the necessity of these spirits we ourselves would be according to McTaggart, since they are created and subject to divine omnipotence.[38] By the concept of the aevum Aquinas would distinguish immutable spirits (according to their esse but not according to electio, their own or God's, or even to affections or places[39]) from their eternal creator. He needs the concept and one might enquire if it might be applied to McTaggart's system, which would then reduce to that "angelism" which Maritain, in his book Three Reformers identifies in the theist Descartes. Aevum however has many difficulties, which Aquinas by no means surmounts, saying that we concede ad praesens (for the present?) that there is only one aevum.[40] Be that as it may, the detailed angelology of Aquinas corresponds at many points with McTaggart's and Hegel's view of the true nature of personality, spirit, as "infinite-in-finitude".[41]

For Régis, anyhow, the qualifier "without being God" is important though in functional terms we might ask why this should be so. Karl Rahner refers, in an early paper, to "the mad and secret Hegelian dream of equality with God".[42] The Indian notion of the atman or true self, again, undercuts the dilemma. The Other closer to myself is indeed I and I he. "The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him" (Eckhart). No doubt in temporal terms I have to rise to consciousness of this, as in Paul's "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me". This, reflection will show, can only be by an identification. The ontology, needed as underpinning a yet more specific sacramental ontology, is not less of an ontology because, say, it is reserved to a sacred sphere of "grace" (theology). For whether or not special help is needed for this consciousness, this reality rather, it falls as object under the philosophical task of ascertaining how things are, one that can brook no confinement to partiality without being corrupted in its inmost nature. Grace, anyhow, would be self-effacing in making a person's acts all the more his or her own or free. Intellect, as capax Dei (itself "coming from outside" on the Aristotelian version of the later natural-supernatural dualism), is receptive of the whole, having, as spirit, this unity, the whole, really within itself. The body is at most a cipher for this, not a competing alternative. Hence, as Aquinas saw, "body" is only spoken of thus abstractly or cum praecisione in a context of logic, or "in second intention". What is real is the man, the human person, and here idealism begins, since man is a conscious spirit, is subject. The religious doctrine of the infused, separately created soul, antiquely colliding as a partly materialist realism with modern science, means this simply and so gives way to it upon analysis. By contrast there is no contradiction between natural science and an absolute idealist analysis of observation and cognition, in physics or biology.[43]

So, again, the body is a cipher, not material, not divisible, not a so-called incomplete substance. It belongs within the sphere of symbolic forms and limited consciousness which McTaggart summarily characterizes as misperception, along with time, change and, it becomes clear, the making of judgments. These are actually, for McTaggart, misperceived perceptions, a kind of inversion of Hume taking place here. But these startling theses McTaggart finds coiled in Hegel and of course we may reserve judgment (or perception!). Still, mind as about to "become the whole" and the empirically observable body do not seem as two quasi-entities ever to be capable of good alignment. The challenge here is to devise a philosophy of nature and of science to correspond, in an integrated cognition theory.

"We do not know what we shall be" was a text admired by McTaggart, who equated what we shall be with what we are. He believed, after all, like so many, in forgotten incarnations, as ignorance for Plato was not other than the profoundest forgetfulness. McTaggart insists though that the unity he treats of is "for" the individuals, not the individuals for the unity or whole which, he claims, cannot itself be personal. Persons as spiritual are infinite-in-finitude, necessary differentiations (i.e. just these actual persons are necessary) of "the unity". This, in Hegelian terms, is the liberty and emergence from religious slavery proper to just Christian man, where we are friends (making up yet each possessing the unity), not servants (of the unity). A Catholic might see this truth well imaged in the much decried custom of the private Mass, provided that any Christian might thus celebrate it, as indeed some women saints in childhood are said to have done, or might have done if they hadn't. Here one thinks of Hegel's saying that the nobility of Christian doctrine renders questions about its historical truth (realist attachment to the Sepulchre in Jerusalem) peripheral. The old idea of spiritual exegesis, giving life as against the killing letter, is not unconnected with this. Carried through consistently this style of consciousness (and we were considering developing consciousness) leads to the contemporary Beethovenian view that "music is a greater revelation than the whole of religion and philosophy". As we found ethics determining the metaphysical, so here we find the aesthetical (inseparable from the idea of the noble) determining the ethical and thus also the metaphysical. McTaggart offers us the "most perfect" unity, not of course as sole guarantee of its truth but clearly seen as the most persuasive. Thus has belief always been born and style is indeed inseparable from content. To argue for this in detail calls for a separate full-length treatment, however. If the claim appears subversive of academic values yet academia needs to advert to it as embodying the immanentist thesis urged here.

Where other and self are identified one can pray to the atman as to the other or to the other as to the self indifferently. "I in them and they in me". We speak, after all, of owing things to oneself, of forgiving (or not) oneself. Agnosce o christiane dignitatem tuam is an Augustinian text that has gone into the liturgy. The thesis is plausible.

What then is it?




This. Thomas Aquinas has demonstrated the reality of something beyond which one cannot ask for further explanation. But he has not shown that this reality is ipso facto "self-explanatory", such that it would amount to a "category mistake" even to speak of further explanation. One cannot even show from Aquinas's texts that "self-explanatory" is a coherent or meaningful expression when applied to anything besides statements or propositions considered "analytic". "Can you explain this?" is always shorthand for explaining why this is so, within some universe, real, hypothetical or fictitious. Similarly "self-smoking", although grammatical, is virtually nonsense. This is not in itself especially damaging to Aquinas since he himself does not use the expression "self-explanatory" or, we claim, anything equivalent to it, such as the Spinozist causa sui might be.

In saying "and this we call God" he does no more than make a statement about himself and contemporaries (within a broad generational perspective), reminiscent of his example of offering sacrifice (to higher powers) as an acknowledged duty apud omnes, not of any strict philosophical relevance and even become today counter-intuitive. To see this helps clarify the perennial relevance of his thought.

The next part of the thesis is that the necessary identity Aquinas claims of the categories of essence and existence in ultimate reality is just that and nothing more. Therefore, nothing forbids interpreting this result as demonstrating the irrelevance or at least limited application of these very categories to that for which further explanation cannot be asked, as in Nicholas of Cusa, but also in a sense in the whole Hegelian dialectic, where we leave the finite category of essence behind in favour of the notion as giving final truth. They are useful analogies merely and, as such, characteristic of Aquinas's general loosely questing method. If we take them univocally we make the same kind of mistake as do those who take each element and argument that Hegel uses in illustrative development of the principle of dialectic as non-negotiable, as McTaggart shows particularly well in his early Hegelian studies and commentaries. All that is needed, within a certain margin of possible error (whatever Hegel himself thought regarding his choice of categories), is the confrontation (antinomy) of finite categories leading up to the Absolute Idea.

The consequent attribute of simplicity in Aquinas, therefore, is a totally open concept, allowing not only relations of reason, plus other attributes, but also real relations within the final Absolute, absolved or loosed from all that is subject to explanation, since itself the "ground" of explanation. The ground can only ground itself by retreating begore a further ground, whether we speak of causa sui or ens a se. A thing can only cause itself as two things, like two boards leaning together, might eternally cause each other. What indeed is the Father without the Son? Particularly in eternity, and not merely in logic, if we persist in speaking in this way, the originated originates the originator. We have a circle which is, of course, simultaneously linear (priority of the Father).

Ens a se, however, simply states negatively that the Absolute does not depend on anything, is absolute. Put differently, the "self-explanatory" notion as advanced by Butler and Finnis is Spinozistic (causa sui) rather than Thomistic (or Hegelian).

With this open metaphysical frame of an Absolute both Aquinas and McTaggart, say, go on to offer anthropologies including accounts of immortality or eternal life for human beings. Hegel shows little direct interest in this in his writings (he perhaps felt that in a sense he enjoyed it already or "timelessly"!) though there is more than mere abstention from its denial, as in the passage speaking of "articulated groups... unsundered spirits transcendent to themselves.... shapes of heaven".[44]

When the Christians canonized the principle of spiritual or mystical interpretation (which orthodoxy depends upon according to J.H. Newman but which occurs as prophecy in Judaism generally) of the Old Testament they could not refuse its application to the later or "New" texts, though they have often wished to (as if "seventy times seven", for example, did not allow one to forgive for a four hundred and ninety first time!). It is at work within the texts themselves, e.g. the parables. So nothing in the texts prohibits eventual replacement through enrichment of the notion of God, some "new approach" dictating this. This too might be in the spirit of the greatest of revolutionaries, who urged us to greater things than he, if possible, and not bury the talent. This, in their day, was done by Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, in the spirit of their prototype, and even, they claim, indwelling principle, in relation to the contemporary Judaism. As part of this creativeness of approach the dependence upon a factual prototype (the empty sepulchre at Jerusalem) appears to become, by the time(!) of Hegel, in some measure sublated, the messenger becoming one with the message. This is the positive sense, often missed, of the Voltairian paradox, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him".

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica Ia, 2, 3.

[2]  John Macquarrie,

Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM, London 1971. Cf. Stephen Theron, “Faith as Thinking with Assent”, New Blackfriars, January 2005.

[3] John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845.

[4] Ia 3. All references to Aquinas are to the Summa theologica where not otherwise specified.

[5] Ia 3, 4 ad 2um.

[6] Cf. Stephen Theron, “The Divine Attributes in Aquinas”, The Thomist 51, 1, January 1987, pp. 37-50.

[7] See note 5.

[8] Cf. Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways, London 1969, p.84.

[9] J.M.E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, Cambridge University Press, 1921 and 1927; also his Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic of 1898 (available on the Internet).

[10] Aquinas, Ia 27, 1 ad 2um.

[11] We may recall G. Grisez’s criticism that Aquinas’s treatise on the finis ultimus is “not well integrated” with his moral philosophy.

[12] McTaggart, Studies in the Hegelian Cosmology, CUP 1901, Chapter Two.

[13] Cf. E. Lévinas, Totality and Infinity, 1961.

[14] G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia 87 (tr. Wallace, OUP 1873).

[15] Ia 3, 4 ad 2um.

[16] Ia 4, 1 ad 3um; cf. F. Inciarte, Forma Formarum, Freiburg/Munich 1970, for one of the best discussions of this doctrinal structure.

[17] This, at least, is Blackfriars translation of esse… comparatur ad alia… sicut receptum ad recipiens.

[18] Hegel, op. cit., section 142.

[19] Ibid. 147.

[20] Aquinas, QD de potentia 7.

[21] Hegel, op. cit. 139.

[22] Ibid. 88.

[23] Cited from Hegel, Werke XIII, 306, in H.C. Gadamer’s “The Idea of Hegel’s Logic”, 1971, Internet.

[24] Hegel, op. cit. 89. J.N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel, Collier Books, New York, 1966, pp. 145-6, resists this view of Hegel, yet at the same time admits it (pp. 158-9). Becoming “applies as much to timeless mathematical and quantitative variation” etc. he says there.

[25] Christopher Butler, In the Light of the Council, DLT, London 1968.

[26] Hegel, Encyclopaedia 50.

[27] J.M. Finnis, Aquinas, Oxford University Press 1998, pp. 301-304.

[28] B. Lonergan’s phrase. See also Axel Randrup, “Cognition and Biological Evolution”, and the famous Lewis-Anscombe debate of long ago.

[29] Ia 44, 1; Ia-IIae 93, 4 ad 3um; Ia 115, 6, obj. 1; 75, 6.

[30] Ia 3, 4 ad2um.

[31] Leslie Armour, “The Idealist Philosophers’ God”, Laval théologique et philosophique 58, 3, October 2002, pp. 443-455; cp. Findlay, op. cit. Pp.163-164.

[32] Hegel, The Science of Logic I, Findlay’s translation from the Jubille Edition of Hegel’s works, ed. H. Glockner, Stuttgart 1927-1930, p.169.

[33] On justice in the infinite cf. Stephen Theron, “Justice: Legal and Moral Debt in Aquinas”, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Fall 2004.

[34] Cp. Aquinas IIIa 3, 7.

[35] L.-M. Régis O.P., Epistemology, New York 1959, p.213. Régis’s references to Aquinas.

[36] J.M.E. McTaggart, Studies in the Hegelian Cosmology 8.

[37] Armour, op. cit. p. 447.

[38] Aquinas Ia 10, 5 ad 3um.

[39] Ia 10, 5.

[40] 10, 6.

[41] Findlay, op. cit. p.41.

[42] K. Rahner, “The Concept of Existential Philosophy in Heidegger”,  translated (Philosophy Today, Vol. 13, No. 2/4, Summer 1969, see p. 136) from Recherches de Sciences religieuses, Vol. 30, 1940, pp. 152-171.

[43] Cf. Axel Randrup, op. cit. (subtitled “An Idealist Approach Resolves a Fundamental Paradox”).

[44] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind (tr. Baillie), p.452 (Dover).

written by Stephen Theron