Is Divine Simplicity a Perfection according to Aquinas?
Thomas V. Morris, maybe the most important architect of contemporary Perfect-Being Theology, rules out divine simplicity as a necessary attribute for a perfect Being. There are, Morris claims, no persuasive theistically motivated reasons to derive simplicity from the central notion of perfection (the primary source of the Anselmian method). The last claim might be taken to mean that simplicity does not (i) (logically and metaphysically) derive from the notion of perfection. But there is also another possibility, overlooked by Morris: (ii) that at least simplicity is harmonious with perfection. As a matter of fact, what I will argue is that (i) is not necessary for simplicity to qualify as a great-making property. Simplicity, in order to be a great-making property, does not have to be derived from the notion of perfection. This is so because of its peculiar character of being conceptually larger in scope with regards to (most) other divine attributes. Morris anselmianism says just this - that simplicity, in order to be among the great-making properties, has to be conceptually derivable from the notion of perfection. But I disagree with this (order of) analysis. I will instead argue that perfection itself is a larger concept, than what Morris (and maybe many with him) makes it out to be. My claim is the following: perfection and simplicity are related in a conceptual tandem, not (merely) by implication. I take this to be a central idea in Aquinas development of the doctrine of God in his both Summae. Hence, (ii), or something along those lines, would by the same token be a better position for any Perfect-Being Theologian.
Motivation for Divine Simplicity
Morris argues that property and temporal simplicity might be concepts that follows from the notion of divine independence or aseity, which are considered as clear divine perfections. Albeit he says that independence and aseity really do not give us any good reasons to accept simplicity since it merely gives us an extra theoretical construct to uphold. So simplicity, according to Morris, is, if at all derivable, derived in the three steps – from perfection to aseity to simplicity. Since aseity instructively explicates the mode of existence of a Perfect Being but simplicity does not - rather it obscures it according to Morris - he feels that simplicity in any thoroughgoing theistic fashion should be rejected as superfluous unless someone shows that so is not the case.
Contrary to Morris contention, there are obviously different ways of arguing simplicity. I would like to challenge Morris derivation by looking at how Aquinas thought of the matter. The most common way to conceive of divine simplicity might be that of negation of composition in God. Aquinas says in his Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences:
God is the first, who gives being to all things. His being, therefore, does not depend on something else. But the being of any composite thing depends on components, and when those components have been removed, the being of the composite thing is destroyed both in the thing as well as in the mind. God is, therefore, not composite. (I Sent, 8, 4).
If a thing has parts, it can also change and be destroyed if the parts are changed or destroyed. That God is indestructible and stable are not matters of great controversy in classical theism (irregardless of our mereological thinking about the divine nature). Contingent beings borrow or ‘have’ their properties whereas God, as a non-contingent being, does not borrow his properties from other beings. He is his properties. To be composite is to be made up of the constituitive elements according to the mode of being and existence of a certain thing. God is not “made up” in any way.
In this way we see that God, according to Aquinas, is never considered a “being in general” but being itself (ipsum esse). Nothing else in the great chain of being merits this ontological status (Cf. argument from De ente et Essentia ch. IV). It is in virtue of being ontologically first that makes him independent on parts for his essence and existence. Nothing has caused his existence or mode of being. Being the first in the order of reality is a states of affairs that nothing else but that which is the most perfect can obtain. God is an esse sine additione, a being without addition because his perfection is from himself.
Here we see the interplay between simplicity and perfection in Aquinas. Common objects in the created order are be determined and perfected by qualities added to it. This is a common way we distinguish one thing from another. God is distinguished in a radically different way: by not being able to receive any further determinations or perfections as all other beings can; God cannot enter as a subject into any genus or species.
Say we still concur with Morris’ (and Mann et al) claim that the main philosophical motivation to argue simplicity would be derived from aseity which is a (less rich but more) common great-making property among theists. But this method is the not that of Aquinas since aseity is a notion that follows from simplicity. God is independent because he is simple, creatures are dependent beings since they are composed.
It looks, though, from the structure of the Summa Contra Gentiles that simplicity follows from other metaphysical considerations. However, I am not convinced that Aquinas had radically changed his mind when writing the Summa Theologica where he puts simplicity right at the beginning, after the demonstration of the existence of God. It is true that simplicity receives a more prominent, not to say, dominant, place in what follows through the rest of the books of the large Summa. Nevertheless this should not lead us to think that simplicity is Aquinas’ primary or only consideration from which everything, at least with regards to the concept of God, can be derived. Aquinas is not a simple Simple-Being Theologian!
Aquinas is a Simple-and-Perfect-Being Theologian, not a Simple-Being Theologian because he is a Perfect-Being Theologian first. Perfection is put close to the beginning (ST I, qq. 4-6 where goodness is interlinked with perfection) and together with simplicity it earns the central place of theology proper, by being concepts that controls the other attributes. God is simple and perfect in his wisdom, power, truth and so on. So for instance it is in keeping with both intuitions – simplicity and perfection - that Aquinas says that God has knowledge since knowledge is a great-making property and that God’s knowledge is somehow simple ST I, q. 14. So perfection controls and modifies notions we attribute to God together with simplicity. I am leaving all the potential problems of ‘simple intellection’ and the like aside here and merely point to the direction and structure of his thought on this matter. Let us therefore now turn to the notion of divine simplicity and its relation to perfection.
Positive and Negative Theology
I would hence like to characterise simplicity and perfection as two sides of the same theological coin and that we need both in philosophical theology in order not to fall of one either side of the horse. Not all students of Aquinas’ philosophical theology and especially his doctrine of God has recognised this dual complementarity of simplicity and perfection. One who uplifting and recent exception is Rudi te Velde in his book on Aquinas doctrine of God (Ashgate, 2007). There is almost an endless stream of more and less likely understandings of Aquinas. Some interpreters of Aquinas want to make him an essentially negative theologian often with reference to the start of the Summa Theologica which strikes a remarkably negative cord saying that we cannot know God in himself, only as he is from his effects and how he is not (quomodo non sit). From there, via the demonstration for the existence of God, he seems to derive divine simplicity which is formulated as a series of negations of God and especially in his relation to the created world. God is neither spatial nor temporal, nor composed of substance and accidents, matter and form nor essence and existence. The main positive affirmation in q. 3 is the identity of essence and existence. This affirmation is the touchstone for his distinction from the created order and how he differs from it. The distinction between God and the world comes down to being essentially composed or essentially non-composed. This intuition seems then to work itself backwards into perfection since in God’s perfect nature there is no distinction between essence and existence. It is a kind of chicken and egg problem to try to tease out what comes first – simplicity or perfection – in the order of Aquinas analysis.
In SCG I Aquinas calls God a “universially perfect being”:
But for a thing that is its own being it is proper to be according to the whole power of being. For example, if there were a separately existing whiteness, it could not lack any of the power of whiteness. For a given white thing lacks something of the power of whiteness through a defect in the receiver of the whiteness, which receives it according to its mode and perhaps not according to the whole power of whiteness. God, therefore, Who is His being, as we have proved above, has being according to the whole power of being itself. Hence, He cannot lack any excellence that belongs to any given thing. (SCG, Ch. XXVIII , trans. Pegis).
Excellences (nobilitas) in every genus of created order is first found in God in a supreme way, a way that is according to him own being, namely according to his own essence. God is never a receiver but always a fountain of excellences which we generically predicate of creatures by similitude to the divine perfection. Hence everything that is called excellent or perfect in the created order is somehow grounded in the divine nature. This gives motivation for proceeding with Perfect-Being Theology since the perfections found in creatures are also found, in a simple way in God. And this is nothing other than the Pseudo-Dionysian way of negation and affirmation in successive steps. It is through the created order we first come to single out what excellencies might be suitable to a universally perfect being but then we need to negate all imperfection before applying it to God. Wisdom is found in creation in wise human beings, but in a defective way since it is not present in its fullness. We suspect there is more to wisdom than the wisdom of Confusius, Socrates or maybe even Jesus (though Scripture says that all the treasures of divine wisdom are hidden in him). This benevolent suspicion about creaturely wisdom leads our thought to divine wisdom. There is a certain kind of lack in the wisdom of Socrates and that is not the case with God. God’s wisdom is full, not lacking anything. Now, we should not confuse things and claim that any kind of method will be able to tell exactly what truth conditions wisdom has for God. Certainly, considering the incomensummerable differences between God and Socrates, the conditions will be very different. Being able to state exactly the differences in truth condition between divine and human wisdom is not necessary for us being able to say that it is true that both Socrates and God are wise, though not exactly in the same way. We can suggest that the main difference is that God has wisdom simply and perfectly, even though that is still begging the question of what it is for a divine being to have wisdom since it for such a Being must (at least created beings) be unsearchable, as Scripture affirms.
At the end of this section (‘On perfection’) in SCG, Aquinas throws out a warning for overbelief in perfection language. What is not made (factum non est) cannot be called perfect (perfectum) since perfection in Latin means that something comes to be more excellent through a process. Perfection signifies a process of becoming or of potency being actualised. It is only by extension of creaturely language we can call God perfect. God is not, properly speaking, a being which has latent potencies that need to be actualised since he is pure act (actus purus). In other words, Aquinas is modest as to the result of the Perfect-Being methodology because of his basic understanding of God as a simple being which has no potentialities.
From what we have just seen, Aquinas approach to theological method is to keep the tension between kataphatic and apophatic theology without giving priority to one over the other. Now, there is a sense in which the kataphatic is primary because something positive first need to be stated in order to negate (to paraphrase Duns Scotus who’s position is not to different form Aquinas, but still different enough to suspect a kataphatic overemphasis). Affirmations about God always have to be modified against the kind of being God is, the divine modus essendi, and therefore no positive thing can be stated before these negative clarifications are established and imbedded in the affirmation. But the negation of affirmation of corporeality and temporality of God are not affirmations that are supposed to be ultimate estimations. These affirmations are merely dialectically introduced just to be negated and then to reach true affirmations - in-corporeality and a-temporeality. Aquinas thinks that for God, to be atemporal and incorporeal, are qualities, insofar as we can wall them qualities, that are worthy only of a Perfect Being. To state that God is simple is to say what he not is, and saying that in relation to the created order. Perfect-Being Theology, if it is given free range might easily forget the creaturely restrictions Aquinas has in mind. It might try talking about God as he is in himself. To say that God is simple is not really to say what God is (positively) and hence no positive affirmation. To say that God is simple is an affirmation of a negation about God in relation to creation; i.e. to affirm that the absence of qualities like corporeality and temporality in God is true. So to ask the question whether simplicity is a divine perfection simpliciter is to ask a strange question for a thomist perspective since the very notion of perfection is so intimately tied up with that of simplicity.
Many theists would perhaps not be too motivated or agree with the basic tenets of Perfect-Being Theology since it seems to rationalistic since it derives the whole idea of divinity from one single concept: absolute perfection. Questions about the knowability and applicability of such concepts must be challenged. Certainly the more articulate Perfect-Being Theologians would not claim that perfection is the only source of knowledge of the divine but would happily say that perfection works together with such approaches to knowledge of God as biblical revelation, creation theology and mystical theology. I hope to have indicated in this article that Perfect-Being Theology is more attractive if we include divine simplicity as a basic conceptual source. Simplicity is the negative side and perfection the positive side of the same theological coin.