Summa Theologiae 1.15

Short Essay: St. Thomas on the Divine Ideas

The Augustinian doctrine of the “divine ideas” has its origins in Plato. In the creation-myth of his Timaeus dialogue, for example, Plato represents the benevolent but not omnipotent creator-god, the world-craftsman or “demiurge,” as fashioning the existing universe by first looking outside of himself to the “eternal model” of the forms, and then imposing that form, beauty, and order onto an otherwise chaotic array of unformed, pre-existing matter. Assuming that the demiurge must have had a model in mind when he fashioned the world, Timaeus, the eponymous spokesman of the dialogue, asks whether the model the demiurge looked to was “the one that does not change and stays the same,” i.e., the eternal, unchanging model of the forms, “or the one that has come to be,” i.e., the changing realm of becoming grasped not by a “reasoned account” but by mere “opinion” and “unreasoning sense perception.” Because the physical cosmos “is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent,” Timaeus concludes that it must have been the eternal model that the demiurge looked to in crafting the world. Although St. Augustine, following in the train of the middle and later Neoplatonist schools, internalized the divine ideas within the mind of God himself, like Plato he also emphasized their role in accounting for the intelligibility, beauty, and general order of the created universe. As Augustine inquires in one place, who would dare to say that God has created all things without a rational plan? But if one cannot rightly say or believe this, it remains that all things are created on a rational plan, and man not by the same rational plan as a horse, for it is absurd to think this. Therefore individual things are created in accord with reasons unique to them. As for these reasons, they must be thought to exist nowhere but in the very mind of the Creator. It is in reference to the Augustinian-Platonic theme of the fundamental intelligibility of creation, finally, that St. Thomas Aquinas first introduces his discussion of the divine ideas in the Summa Theologiae. Thomas’s opening article on the subject asks if there are in fact any ideas in God, to which he replies that, “[a]s then the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect…, there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And in this the notion of an idea consists” (ST 1.15.1). One of the issues Augustine did not directly address, but which became a point of contention in later scholastic discussions of the subject (to say nothing of recent debates over how St. Thomas is best to be interpreted on the matter), involves the problem of reconciling a multiplicity of divine ideas within the divine intellect with the simplicity of the divine essence. We will consider in particular Ockham’s drastic reformulation of the traditional doctrine of divine ideas for the sake of the divine simplicity in our later discussion of divine omnipotence. For the present we observe that, like Augustine, Aquinas also affirmed a multiplicity of ideas in the mind of God, though he clarifies that what gives the ideas their multiplicity is the role they play in God’s own self-knowledge. As Thomas explains: Since God knows His own essence perfectly, He knows it according to every mode in which it can be known. Now it can be known not only as it is in itself, but as it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness. But every creature has its own proper species, according to which it participates in some degree in likeness to the divine essence. So far, therefore, as God knows His essence as capable of such imitation by any creature, He knows it as the particular type and idea of that creature; and in like manner as regards other creatures. So it is clear that God understands many particular types of many things, and these are many ideas. (ST 1.15.2) The divine ideas after which God patterns his creatures are the result of God’s knowledge of himself in his own essence. In knowing himself, God invariably knows the infinite number of ways in which his essence might be “imitated” by or participated in by his creatures, and it is this knowledge which comprises the divine ideas. It is precisely because God is supremely one, without limit, and hence infinite and capable of infinite imitation on the part of his finite creatures, that God must have an infinite number of ideas by which he grasps his own essence as infinitely imitable by his possible creatures. For Aquinas, then, following Augustine and Plato, the doctrine of divine ideas is important for understanding the nature of divine artistry or craftsmanship: when God creates the world, he does so not arbitrarily or irrationally, but beautifully and orderly through the intelligible exemplars which he intellectually conceives beforehand, indeed, from all eternity. According to Martin Heidegger’s influential critique of the last century, however, such traditional, exemplarist theories of God and reality, far from circumventing the kind of technological approach to nature, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his influential essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends, fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. Yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework which theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, according to Heidegger, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.” While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art. Recently, however, it has been countered that, properly understood, Thomas’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, the role the divine ideas play within that doctrine, far from exemplifying the kind of technical thinking and making criticized by Heidegger, in fact provide us with the only true alternative to them. As Robert Miner has stated the problem in his study of creative knowledge in later medieval and early modern philosophy and theology, what is basically at issue here is the “relation between knowing and making.” Following the analysis of R.G. Collingwood, Miner distinguishes on the one hand the “paradigm of craft” or “technical making,” which “involves a distinction between planning and execution, where ‘planning’ means precise foreknowledge of what is to be made, before the making is executed.” In craft or technical making, in other words, the relation between knowing and making “is one of dependence: making (understood as the execution of the means through the transformation of matter) depends upon an antecedent knowledge of the form. The activity of making does not provide knowledge of the formal cause of the artifact, but presupposes this knowledge.” On the craft model, consequently, instead of the produced artifact providing a new or authentic avenue for being to reveal itself (the task Heidegger had assigned to true poiesis), the produced artifact represents merely a “mimetic” and hence superfluous or redundant overflow from a prior act of knowing or speculative vision. An alternative form of making to the craft model, accordingly, would be one in which “the activity of making does not merely devise means for the sake of giving material embodiment to what is already known, but actually contributes to our knowledge…” Contrary to the suggestion, finally, that the exemplarism of Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas makes God into a kind of demiurgic “super-technician,” Miner argues that it in fact gives us a true basis for thinking alternatively about human making. To be sure, as Miner points out, God’s knowledge of the divine ideas for Thomas “in the first instance, is a speculative knowledge,” that is to say, a knowledge of God’s essence in itself and without reference to his doing anything with that knowledge. Yet this knowledge is not a “sterile” knowledge, as it immediately gives rise to, and is implicative of, the divine practical knowledge, or God’s knowledge as directed to operation, in this case, the operation of creation. As we noted earlier, in knowing his own essence God at the same time knows his essence as imitable by his creatures, so that while God’s practical knowledge of the divine ideas is conceptually distinct from his speculative knowledge of his essence, the two are nevertheless inseparable from each other. As Miner explains: Thus God’s knowledge of ideas may be either entirely speculative, or both speculative and practical. When they are known speculatively, as principles of knowledge, they are “types” (rationes). When they are not only known speculatively, but also directed to the making of something, they attain the status of an exemplar, that is, the “principle of the making of things” (principium factionis rerum). A distinction between speculative and practical knowledge of ideas is necessary, because Aquinas allows that God knows some types of created things but chooses not to actualize them. But he does not sever practical knowledge of exemplars from speculative self-knowledge. “In speculative knowledge of Himself, He possesses both speculative and practical knowledge of all others things,” Aquinas concludes the final article of Question 14. Thus God’s knowledge of exemplars is essentially different from the craftsman’s knowledge of forms, because the former is a function of perfect self-knowledge, and the latter is not… For Aquinas, then, while God’s speculative knowledge may precede and so be distinguishable from God’s practical knowledge in a logical sense, his speculative knowledge nevertheless always involves his practical knowledge. There is no craft-like process or series of stages, therefore, which God goes through in which he is first a seer or knower and only afterward a doer or maker, for in the very act of knowing himself, God knows himself as maker, or at least as a potential or possible maker, which is another way of saying that only in knowing himself as a (possible) maker does God know himself as God. Corroborating this account is the almost creativity or artistry which Aquinas attributes to the otherwise speculative act whereby God knows the divine ideas in the first place. In his argument for a plurality of divine ideas in his Disputed Questions on Truth, for example, Thomas writes: “The one first form to which all things are reduced is the divine essence, considered in itself. Reflecting upon this essence, the divine intellect devises—if I may use such an expression—different ways in which it can be imitated. The plurality of ideas comes from these different ways.” According to Aquinas’s divine psychology, God’s ideas are the result of his first understanding his own essence, and consequent (logically) to that, understanding all the ways in which his essence may be imitated by created being. The act by which God knows the divine ideas, however, Thomas again depicts not merely in terms of a passive, speculative, and hence “technological” gaze at his own essence in order to understand the possible ways of it being imitated, but more than that, in terms of an active process of “devising” those ways in which his essence might be imitable. The word Thomas uses here is adinvenit, which W. Norris Clarke interprets as an act of divine “invention.” On Clarke’s reading, the divine ideas are the result of God’s “infinitely fecund, artistically inventive activity, which does not find them somehow ready-made in His essence (what could that possibly mean ontologically?) but literally ‘invents,’ ‘excogitates’ them, using the infinitely simple plenitude of Esse that is His essence as supreme analogical model or norm…” In a similar vein, John F. Wippel writes how, for Aquinas, “in knowing his own essence, [God] also knows (or ‘discovers’) the many ways in which it is imitable and, therefore, the divine ideas and the possibles.” On this understanding, the divine ideas emerge as a form of divine self-interpretation: they are not merely God’s knowledge, but his interpretation of himself as imitable by his creatures. What all of this suggests is that God is not merely an artist in his ad extra act of creation, but more radically, for St. Thomas God is like an artist as he knows and therefore relates to his own self. God is an artist essentially. The place where this point is perhaps made the most perspicuously is in Thomas’s distinctively and, over the course of his career, increasingly Trinitarian approach to the question of divine ideas. As Miner again points out, [t]he conception of principles of production is not a work of divine imagination or will, but part of God’s self-knowledge that occurs within the life of the Trinitarian Persons, through the utterance of His Verbum. This utterance cannot be reduced to the technical paradigm: it is neither creation nor technical making, but generation…. The ideas generated within the Verbum are not distinct from the generator (as any factum is distinct from its factor), but co-equal with him, one in substance. The divine ideas by which God knows himself as imitable by his creatures take place within the Divine Idea, namely the eternal Word and Son of God who is consubstantial with the Father. As the eternal Word of the Father, the Son is at once the knowledge and the only-begotten of God, suggesting that God is as much a knower on account of his being—if not exactly a “maker,” then what is more—a “begetter,” as he is a begetter on account of his being a knower. Thus, there is a sense in which even God’s “speculative” knowledge of himself which is the Son, far from involving a passive, static beholding which is afterward banally repeated, albeit on a finite scale, in the act of creation, is profoundly “productive” or rather poetic in the sense that it is constituted by nothing less than the Son’s eternal procession from the Father. As Aquinas quotes Augustine in his discussion of the Son’s “appropriation” of all the essential attributes of the godhead, “as the perfect Word” of God, who is also the receptacle of the divine ideas, the Son is at once the “art of the omnipotent God” (ST 1.39.8). It is this divine pattern of poetic procession within the godhead which comprises the divine essence, finally, that, mutatis mutandi, provides Aquinas with his basic framework for understanding the “emanation” from the divine essence that comprises the act of creation. In a passage found in Thomas’s treatise on creation, Thomas draws the following analogy between the way in which the human craftsman makes a thing through an act of intellect and will with the way in which the Father creates through his Son and Spirit: Now the craftsman works through the word conceived in his intellect, and through the love of his will regarding some object. Hence also God the Father made the creature through His Word, which is His Son, and through His Love, which is the Holy Ghost. And so the processions of the Persons are the types of the productions of creatures in so far as they include the essential attributes, which are knowledge, and will. (ST 1.45.6) In an essay below on Thomas’s doctrine of the Trinity, I discuss how it was through his Trinitarian ontology that Thomas helped secured real significance or value for human thinking of creaturely difference or “otherness”; here the suggestion is that it is through this same Trinitarian ontology that St. Thomas likewise secures for human making real meaning or significance. As Miner aptly summarizes the matter, “Aquinas’s model of generation and creation—interior conception of exemplars via processual self-knowledge accompanied by the production of being from no raw material—is a decisive moment in the articulation of a concept of making that is not technical making.” In developing just how Thomas’s Trinitarian conception of creation makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making, Miner turns to the thought of Jacques Maritain, whose Thomistic theory of art influenced many lay Catholic artists and writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, including possibly Tolkien. As Miner notes, while God’s knowledge of his creative exemplars through an act of perfect self-knowledge must remain essentially different from a human maker’s knowledge of the forms he makes, according to Maritain, the “creative intuition” of the poet, like God’s knowledge of the exemplars but unlike the form apprehended by the mere craftsman, does involve a kind of “obscure grasping of his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or through connaturality which is born in the spiritual conscious, and which fructifies only in the work.” Thus, there is a kind of “free creativity of the spirit” on the part of the poet which makes him like a god, albeit a “‘poor god’ because he does not know himself,” and, of course, because his creative insight “depends on the external world,” whereas “God’s creative Idea, from the very fact that it is creative, does not receive anything from things…” As to how the poet first comes by this knowledge of the artistic form, for the medieval Schoolmen, at least, it could not have been by mere abstraction since, in Maritain’s words, the form in question is “in no way a concept, for it is neither cognitive nor representative.” Instead, the “creative idea is an intellectual form, or a spiritual matrix, containing implicitly, in its complex unity, the thing which, perhaps for the first time, will be brought into actual existence.” The result is that for neither God nor man is the Thomist exemplar a mere “ideal model sitting for the artist in his own brain, the work supposedly being a copy or portrait of it. This would make of art a cemetery of imitations.” Rather, “the work is an original, not a copy.” Miner finds particular support for this reading of Thomas in question 44, article 3 of the Summa in which the angelic doctor illustrates his point concerning God’s exemplar causality of all things with the example of the human craftsman who “produces a determinate form in matter by reason of the exemplar before him, whether it is the exemplar beheld externally, or the exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind.” In Thomas’s notion of a human artificer producing form in matter through an “exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind,” Miner sees the suggestion of an analogy between a particular kind of human making on the one hand and the act of generation within the divine mind on the other: The conception of an exemplar in the mind is like the utterance of an inner word, a verbum which proceeds from the mind, but is not distinct from the mind. Maritain notes the importance of the verbum mentis doctrine for Aquinas’s account of making: “before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” He quotes a pertinent text from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences: “the procession of art is twofold, that is, from the soul of the artificer to his art, and from his art to his artifacts.” In summary, then, in Thomas’s divine psychology, including his doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of creation as determined by that doctrine, Thomas makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making which rescues it from the banal nihilism towards which the technological model has been alleged to lead, by dignifying it with real metaphysical significance in its participation in and mirroring of the profundity of God’s own Triune life.


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