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Thomas Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius on the Divine Names

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Thomas Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius on the Divine Names
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    Nathan Cornwell Thomas Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius on the Divine Names Given that God exists, is it possible to know Him in this life? If so, how? Given that Godis knowable, is it possible to name Him in this life? If so, how? The answer to this set of questions is arguably the primary object of any philosophy that admits of the existence of God.One such philosophy is Neoplatonism, which in both its pagan and Christian forms places primeimportance on the divine. Two thinkers who are deeply imbued with Neoplatonic ideas and thuswrestle with the above question are Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Thomas Aquinas. Due to a number of factors, most especially apparent explicit contradictions of Dionysian answers to the questionsin his wri tings, it seems that Aquinas’ answer to these questions is purely  sui generis ; however,his place in the line of Neoplatonic philosophers challenges this view. Aquinas commented onand frequently cited with approbation On the Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius. It would seemthence to suggest that Aquinas offers but little substantial advance in this area. Thus out of thesetwo contradictory views the question arises with which this essay is concerned: To what extentdoes Aquinas innovate upon the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius on knowing and naming God? This essay will argue that although a large amount of the substance of Aquinas’ treatment of  knowing and naming God in this life is anticipated in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, he offerscertain important advances in the area because of his more exact treatment of the nature of namesin general and the introduction of the idea of analogy of proper proportion. To prove this thesis,this essay will draw out the most important points in the account of each thinker and compareand contrast them, beginning with those theses that are shared more or less univocally betweenthem and ending with those which Aquinas innovates.  2In order to understand the problems which Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius must solve inholding that God may be known and named by us in this life, a brief overview of the account of God with which they are working must be given . Aquinas’ First Way, that from motion, proves not only that God exists but also that He is pure act. 1 From this proposition may be derived along list of propositions about God following from the above, only two of which are of interesthere. The first is that God is infinite, not as a quantity but as not being limited by matter or evenessence. 2 The second is that God is perfect, containing eminently the perfections of all beings. 3  Pseudo-Dionysius is in substantial agreement with Aquinas in this area, despite his different useof certain terms. It is true that Pseudo- Dionysius’ favo red term for God ’s transcendence is “  beyond being. ” However, Aquinas seems to have known that this difference is only verbal. Hesays that since the Platonists  —  in which school he implicitly places Pseudo-Dionysius  —  did notdistinguish between prime matter and privation, were forced to apply the name non-being tothem. 4 Although he does not explicitly say so, the same applies to God as hyper-being, asDionysius is wont to call him. Thus Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius mean the same thing in usingthese disparate terms; the difference is simply a way of speaking. These two propositions,namely that God is infinite and eminently perfect  —  or, in the terminology of Pseudo-Dionysius,the one proposition that God is beyond being  —  complicates the prospect of allowing knowledgeof God in this life to the point of apparent impossibility, since, as Aquinas holds,it is natural for us through intellect to know only natures that exist in material individuals,yet not as they are in a material individual, but rather as they are abstracted from it by theconsideration of the intellect. 5   1 ST I, 2, 3 2 ST I, 7, 1 3 ST I, 4, 1-2; cf. Garrigou-Lagrange, 87ff. 4 ST I, 5, 2, ad 1 5 ST I, 12, 4  3Pseudo-Dionysius, although he does not comment on the proper object of the human intellect,again agrees with Aquinas, since the very reason that such care needs to be taken in speaking of God is that He is beyond all sense perception and knowledge. 6 This makes holding the possibilityof knowledge of God problematic, first since God is not a material individual, both in the senseof having no matter and therefore not being accessible to the senses, from which all knowledgearises, and in the sense that every material individual is a limited thing, while God is unlimited.Furthermore, and closely related to this, the created intellect, since it is finite, has no capacity tocognize the infinite essence of God, even if the impossibility of a form naturally being cognized by the intellect without species were granted. 7 The first task for the two thinkers, then, is todefend the logical possibility of knowledge of God.Although both Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius hold that it is true that God is unknowablein the strict sense, both of them also hold that a certain kind of knowledge of God is possible inthis life. Aquinas begins to formulate his position by saying that God “is in Himself supremelyknowable.” 8   In other words, it is not that “God cannot be known in any way, but rather that Godexceeds all knowledge, which means that God Himself is not comprehended.” 9 Knowledge of God for Aquinas therefore must fall somewhere between full comprehension and complete lack.He picks up this line of thought in the  Prima Secundae , where he distinguishes between twotypes of comprehension. The first, about which he seems to be speaking in the citation above, isinclusion of what is comprehended in he who comprehends, which is manifestly impossible inthe case of man knowing God; the second, however, is a sort of relation between that which is 6 DN I.1, MT I.1, et al. 7 ST 1, 12, 4   8 I, 12, 1 9 Ibid. ad 3  4comprehended and he who comprehends. 10 Aquinas defends the possibility of this relation between finite intellect and infinite Deity by distinguishing between three types of relations: inwhich each term is conceptual, in which each term is grounded in real natures, and in which oneterm is conceptual and the other grounded in a real nature. 11 Since it is only in this last sense of relation that the intellect can be related to any object, nothing prevents a certain kind of knowledge of God, since this species of relation constitutes no real change in the thing known, solong as the content of this knowledge does no violence to the transcendence of God.Despite appearances to the contrary, Aquinas is in complete agreement with Pseudo-Dionysius on this point. The first objection which arises against this proposition is the overallcharacter of Pseudo- Dionysius’ thought, which is altogether  more mystical and seems to focusfar more on unknowing than it does on knowing. This comes out especially strongly in  Mystical Theology , of which Ben Schomakers rightly says, “e verything [Pseudo-Dionysius] has to sayabout negative theology is said here and can either be explicitly read in these lines or deduced from them.” 12   The work begins with an exuberant prayer which celebrates God’s hiddenness andends with an almost equally exuberant litany of denials of all being to God. 13 It is true thatPseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas have different ends in mind and as such make different use of terms. Although they are treating the same subject, Pseudo- Dionysius’ express end is  preparationfor mystical union with God, 14   while Aquinas’ is simply instruction in sacred doctrine. 15 Assuch, there is a teleology to Pseudo- Dionysius’ treatment that is absent in Aquinas’ which affectshis work, namely, an emphasis on the transcendence of God and a consequent preference for  10 I-II, 4, 3 11 I, 13, 7 12 Schomakers 2008 13 MT I.1; V 14 MT I.1; cf. Schomakers 2008 15 ST pro.  5negative knowledge and names. This is not to say that Aquinas does not recognize this end, or even that their conclusions are therefore necessarily different. As will be shown below, Aquinasalso gives pride of place to negative knowledge of God as well, although he focuses on our  positive ability to know and name God, which for obvious reasons is important to theology.Furthermore, nowhere does Aquinas disjoin natural knowledge of God and supernatural love of Him; in fact, his treatment of the  preambula fidei suggests much the same teleology of thenatural knowledge of God as preparation for grace as Pseudo-Dionysius. 16  After having defended the possibility of a certain kind of knowledge of God, it remainsfor Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas to explain how one may know God in this life; that is, the possible extent and content of this knowledge. Aquinas says that “i t is not possible for us toknow what God is, but rather what God is not.” 17 Since the Divine Essence is infinite, it can inno way be received by a finite intellect. As said above, this is not to say that nothing at all can beknown about God; instead, this means only that knowledge of him is not had in the same way asknowledge of those things available to abstraction; namely, by cognition. Instead, where theessence of a thing in not able to be cognized, man can only reason about it from its effects. 18  Thus Aquinas argues that man may know whether God exists and that which belongs necessarilyto Him from creatures by means of the triplex via : by relationship of principle ( habitudine principii ), by way of excellence, and by way of remotion (  per modum excellentiae et remotionis ). 19 Aquinas explains the via thus:[F]rom the knowledge of sensible things the complete power of God cannot be knownand conseque ntly neither can God’s essence be seen. But since they are God’s effects and dependent on their cause, we can be led from them to knowing whether God exists, andfurther to knowing what necessarily belongs to God insofar as God is the first cause of all 16 ST I, 2, 2, ad 1 17 ST I, 3, pro. 18 ST I, 2, 2 19 ST I, 13, 1
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