Summa Theologiae 1.25

Short Essay: St. Thomas and William of Ockham on Divine Possibility

After divine knowledge and will, the third of the three divine operations distinguished by St. Thomas in his treatment of God in the Summa is that of divine power or omnipotence, an important subject in the history of philosophical theology. In the later medieval era, a debate among schoolmen such as St. Thomas and William of Ockham waged over not whether God had the freedom and power to create or not to create, but over the extent of God’s freedom and power to create things or worlds other than what he has created, a debate, moreover, that had enormous repercussions for the future development of theology and, indeed, for the advent of the modern era itself.[1] However, it has only been in the last half-century that historians have begun to realize the important role that the question of divine omnipotence, and in particular, the scholastic distinction between God’s theoretical power absolutely considered (potentia absoluta) and God’s power as it is actually manifested in the created order (potentia ordinata), played in the development of late medieval thought. Although Augustine as early as the fifth century introduced the conceptual distinction between divine capacity and volition, or between what God wills to do and what he can do (potuit, sed noluit), the question of divine power did not begin to gain the status of a distinct theological locus for another six hundred years, when in 1067 Cardinal Desiderius and Peter Damian fatefully debated the subject one night over dinner.[2] Even so, according to William Courtenay, it was not until around the year 1245 that the distinction between God’s absolute and ordained powers received the classical formulation that would be adopted by thinkers as otherwise opposed to each other as Aquinas and Ockham.[3] And although the distinction was certainly emphasized more in the thought of Ockham and later nominalists (according to Courtenay, it shows up in fully a third of the questions in Ockham’s Sentences commentary),[4] Thomas’s own interest in the subject of divine power is indicated in his having convened an entire disputatio on the topic, the proceedings of which were published in his Disputed Questions on Power. As for the distinction of powers itself, Courtenay observes that Thomas used it “far more than has been realized, both the actual language of potentia absoltua/ordinata and more frequently the concept that lies behind it.”[5]

As has been further observed by historian Heiko Oberman, the distinction of powers originally functioned as a dialectical apparatus allowing theologians to consider simultaneously the divine omnipotence that infinitely transcends the created order, and God’s commitment and loyalty to that order.[6] The distinction, in other words, was a conceptual device designed for balancing a consideration of the radical contingency of creation with a recognition of its stability and dependability. Because of the dialectical character of the distinction of powers, it has been pointed out, neither the “ordained” nor the “absolute” pole of the distinction was ever intended to be taken and applied in isolation from its dialectical counterpart.[7]

Thomas’s own statement of the distinction of powers in the Summa appears in his response to the question of article five, question 25, as to “whether God can do what he does not.” In his reply to the first objection, Aquinas reasons that,

because power is considered as executing, the will as commanding, and the intellect and wisdom as directing, what is attributed to His power considered in itself, God is said to be able to do in accordance with His absolute power. Of such a kind is everything which has the nature of being, as was said above. What is, however, attributed to the divine power according as it carries into execution the command of a just will, God is said to be able to do by His power as ordained. In this manner, we must say that God can do other things by His absolute power than those He has foreknown and preordained Himself to do. (ST 1.25.5 ad 1)[8]

By God’s “absolute power,” Aquinas means “His power considered in itself,” or his power in abstraction from or without consideration of how God actually does exercise his power in the created order. On this traditional understanding of potentia absoluta, the latter represents an admittedly human way of regarding or thinking about God’s power, and is not to be understood as a particular kind or avenue or exercise of divine power. Rather, potentia absoluta refers only to those hypothetical and therefore non-actualized possibilities that theoretically lie open to God but which he nevertheless does not choose to implement. In fact, it might be less misleading to describe divine potentia absoluta as a kind of divine inactivity, to a way in which God can but does not act and will not act. God’s potentia ordinata, by contrast, Aquinas identifies here as that power of God as it actually finds itself exercised by the divine will in the world. Potentia absoluta, in short, refers to what God can but does not and will not do; potentia ordinata refers to what God wills to and in fact does do.

Granted, then, that for Thomas God’s ordained power does not exhaust his absolute power, the question remains as to what kinds of things, beyond those which he has in fact already created, God’s power actually does or might extend. What, in short, are the parameters of divine possibility? For starters, for the entire tradition which took up the question of divine omnipotence, one of the fundamental “limits” on God’s absolute power is the law of non-contradiction. Thomas writes:

Now nothing is opposed to the notion of being except non-being. Therefore that which implies being and non-being at the same time is incompatible with the notion of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent; but whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. (ST 1.25.3)[9]

God cannot create or do anything that would involve a logical contradiction. Yet the thing to note here is how St. Thomas defines logical contradiction in terms of ontological contradiction, that is to say, in terms of “that which implies being and non-being at the same time,” thereby rendering it “incompatible with the notion of an absolutely possible thing…” Of such a kind is “everything which has the nature of being.” Possibility in its first instance is more than a mere modality of thought: it is a modality of being, a point Thomas makes in a statement immediately preceding the above passage in which he says that “whatever can have the nature of being is numbered among the absolutely possible things in respect of which God is called omnipotent.”[10] But as Aquinas explains even earlier in the same article, what has “the nature of being” is determined by the divine being itself, which “is infinite, and is not limited to any genus of being but possesses beforehand within itself the perfection of all being.”[11] Thus, just as the logically possible is reducible to the ontologically possible, so the ontologically possible turns out to be reducible to the theologically possible, meaning that the answer to the question of what God can do is a function of what God is.[12] To fault such a response for its evident circularity is to fail to reckon with the utter primacy and supremacy of the God who is being itself.

However, if Thomas’s answer to the question of divine possibility is ultimately circular, it is not on that account a vacuous or vicious circle. For a thing to be creatable by God, it must be possible in the most absolute or furthest reaching sense of the word: for it to be possible is for it to be able to have being, and because God himself is the infinite perfection and measure of being, for a thing to be able to have being is simply for it to be capable of bearing some finite likeness to God’s own self. And this brings us back to Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas discussed earlier, inasmuch as the divine ideas are God’s knowledge of himself as imitable by his creatures. For a thing to be possible, therefore, is for God to know that thing as imitable of his own self, as capable of bearing some likeness to himself. As Thomas himself puts it, “it is in the knowledge of God not that [things] are, but that they are possible” (ST 1.14.9 ad 3).[13] The resulting relation between Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of possibility is concisely stated in a statement by Wippel that “from the ontological standpoint a divine idea and a possible are really one and the same.”[14] To be possible and therefore creatable by God is to be capable of imitating, sharing in, or otherwise revealing the divine being.

Filling out Thomas’s account of divine possibility even further is his point that, because God is not only being itself but also goodness and wisdom itself, “God can do nothing that is not in accord with His wisdom and goodness,” and therefore “whatever is done by Him in created things, is done according to a fitting order and proportion, in which consists the notion of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works” (ST 1.21.4).[15] Because what is possible for God to do or create is reducible to that which is capable of imitating his own being, and because God’s being simply is his wisdom and justice, it follows that what is possible for God to do or create must likewise be characterized by the “fitting order and proportion” that is his wisdom and justice.[16] This condition of a “fitting order and proportion” required by justice is important as it implies an aesthetic dimension to Aquinas’s whole approach to the question of divine omnipotence not often recognized in discussions of the subject. As Aquinas argues earlier on in the Summa, the notion of proportionality is an essential aspect of beauty:

Beauty and good in a subject are the same, for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently good is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for good properly relates to the appetite (good being what all things desire), and therefore it has the aspect of an end (for the appetite is a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to the knowing power, for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion, for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind… (ST 1.5.4 ad 1)[17]

Although Thomas never expressly identifies beauty as one of the transcendental attributes of being, its intrinsic relationship to the good (which is a transcendental property of being) means that where there is being, there is also beauty.[18] This suggests in turn that what is possible for divine omnipotence to do or make is that which has the nature of the beautiful. God can do what is beautiful, and only what is beautiful, because only the beautiful has the nature of being, and hence of possibility.

The aesthetic dimension to Thomas’s requirement that divine omnipotence be conformed to the “fitting order and proportion” of divine justice is further indicated in that this is also one of the choice places where Thomas likens God to an artist. In response to the question, “Whether the justice of God is truth?”, Thomas writes:

But when the intellect is the rule or measure of things, truth consists in the squaring of the thing to the intellect; just as an artist is said to make a true work when it is in accordance with his art.

Now as artificial things are related to the art, so are works of justice related to the law with which they accord. Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is His law, is suitably called truth. Thus we also in human affairs speak of the truth of justice. (ST 1.21.2)[19]

Divine justice means that God always does what he does in conformity to a rule or law, even if that rule or law is ultimately derived from the perfection of his own being. And although the exact order and law we find in this world would not necessarily apply in any alternative, possible world that God might have created, it is nevertheless the case that some order and law, one presumably analogous to our own, would have to apply there. To put this in terms of the distinction of powers, what God is capable of doing by his potentia absoluta, and therefore capable of doing outside of the potentia ordinata of this world, would nevertheless still have to be consistent with the ordained power established or determined for the alternative, possible world under conjecture. To put it differently still, what it means to say that God could do or create x, de potentia absoluta, is to say that there is a possible order such that it would fall within the divine potentia ordinata proper to that order for God to do x. (Another way of putting this is to say that God’s potentia absoluta consists in an infinite set of potentia ordinatas.) And this means that any hypothesis as to what God is capable of doing or creating de potentia absoluta must also presuppose an order in which the actualization of that hypothesis would be rendered something just and wise for God to do; that is to say, it must presuppose a rule or law to which the actualization of that hypothesis on the part of God may be seen to conform. As one can see, for Aquinas God’s potentia ordinata or his power as it is actually exercised in this world, while clearly not exhaustive of, is nevertheless an important indication of the nature of God’s potentia absoluta, or unactualized power. One way in which this has been put in some of the literature on the subject is to say that, for Aquinas, actuality or actual existence is the measure of possibility or possible existence.[20] As for this order according to which the divine wisdom does all things, as Alice Ramos has helpfully pointed out, it is not merely “the static order of coordination, that is, the right arrangement of parts making a systematic whole or a universe, but also as a dynamic order of subordination whereby there is a right arrangement of means to the end. Order in the dynamic sense refers to the return of all things to their initial principle, that is, to the unity from whence the multiplicity or diversity of beings proceeded.”[21] This is another way of saying that what is possible and therefore creatable by God is anything which has God as its final end, goal, or fulfillment. As we found Thomas putting it in his discussion of the divine will, it is necessary that what God wills (and hence what is possible) should be “ordered to His own goodness as [its] end.”

For Aquinas, then, divine possibility and the divine ideas are ultimately one and the same: what it means for something to be possible is for God to have an idea of it, which is for him to know the thing as finitely imitable of some aspect of his own infinite perfection, actuality, or being. In short, God’s own self is the measure of what God can make or do, and therefore the measure of what is intrinsically or absolutely possible. In the generation of thinkers immediately following Aquinas, however, discussions of the possibles and God’s ideas grew increasingly more subtle and complex as theologians labored in particular to reconcile conceptually the multiplicity of divine ideas required by creation with the fact of divine simplicity.[22] The debate finally reached a point of crisis in the mid-fourteenth century in the thought of William of Ockham, whose radically revised account of the divine ideas and divine possibility, regarded by many historians as a critical development in the advent of modern thought, will provide us with a better sense of what precisely is at stake theologically and metaphysically in St. Thomas’s own understanding of these matters.[23]

Ockham’s most significant consideration of the question of divine ideas appears in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, part 1, d. 35, q. 5.[24] Ockham begins his discussion with Henry of Ghent’s statement of the traditional views that “the divine essence itself is the ground and exemplary form of creatures,” and that a divine idea, “formally considered, is nothing else than an aspect of imitability in the divine essence itself, in so far as it is considered by the intellect.”[25] Against this traditional position, however, Ockham goes on to argue that, given the utter simplicity of the divine essence on the one hand and the admitted multiplicity of the divine ideas on the other, the divine ideas cannot in fact be identical with the divine essence as had been traditionally held to be the case. Thus, while Ockham grants with Augustine that God must create according to some intelligible exemplar if the act of creation is to avoid being “irrational,” he breaks both with Augustine (though without drawing attention to the fact) and the entire tradition based on him when he says that the exemplary role provided by the divine ideas “is not applicable to the divine essence itself, nor to any aspect of reason, but to the created thing itself.[26] In other words, the divine ideas to which God looks in the act of creation and after which creation is patterned are in fact not truly divine at all, but are rather themselves created entities. Or rather, the ideas to which God looks in producing creatures are nothing other than the creatures themselves as known or foreknown by God in their producible aspect: as Ockham himself puts it, “the created thing itself is the idea… Therefore, [God] really looks to the creature and by looking to it He can produce.”[27] However, because the number of things which God can produce are infinite and known by him from all eternity, it follows for Ockham that God’s otherwise created ideas are themselves infinite in number and eternal in duration.[28] Not only are God’s ideas not identical with his essence, neither do his ideas even have any kind of imitative ground in his essence, as may be seen when Ockham approvingly cites the view “according to some” that “the created things existed from eternity in the potentiality of God but not in His nature, so that in their view the created things existed and did not exist.”[29]

For Ockham, then, God’s ideas of what he can create are to be understood in reference not to the divine nature, but to the divine power, not to divine essence, but to divine omnipotence, a fact that has far-reaching ramifications for the kind of thing Ockham allows to be possible for God to do or to make, as we shall see. As was the case for Aquinas, for Ockham the “divine” ideas are an exhaustive register or index of divine possibility: in a word, the ideas are the “possibles.” This means, however, that in exporting the ideas outside the mind of God by identifying them with his creatures, either potential or actual, Ockham also effectively locates the ground of divine possibility in a source external to God as well. Like Aquinas, Ockham affirms the law of non-contradiction as a negative limit on divine power, yet whereas Aquinas, as we saw, articulates logical possibility in terms of its determining ground within an ontological and ultimately theological possibility, Ockham by contrast roots possibility not in terms of the divine but in terms of the creature’s own being.[30] Thus, according to Allan Wolter, what is logically possible for God to do or to make in Ockham’s view is “not something that a creature has by reason of some relation to an active potency in God. It is something which the creature has of itself.”[31] In other words, the logical possibility of a creature is not something determined by its relationship to God’s own power, much less to God’s own being, but is rather a property or principle intrinsic to the creature and therefore apart from any intrinsic reference to God. In short, it is only by first being intrinsically and logically possible on its own terms that a possible being is afterwards to be related to God, yet not necessarily in terms of his own essence or nature, as we have seen, but rather simply in terms of his power to bring that possible into being. This is not to say, however, that the possibles themselves have some kind of being or existence independent of God, for while the possibility of the possibles is determined independently of God, the possibles are, by themselves, literally a “nothing” (nihil), inasmuch as they have their being only as objects thought by God. Were God to “cease” thinking them, they would not exist at all.[32] Thus, possibility belongs to things themselves which in themselves are nothing. To summarize, then, instead of God’s power and (what for Aquinas was identical with it) God’s essence being the determining ground of the possible, for Ockham God’s power is measurable by an extrinsically determined logical possibility. In exchange for the “actualism” of Aquinas, according to which the goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty of God’s potentia ordinata as manifest in actual existence provides the rule or “law” for the endless possibilities of God’s potentia absoluta, the “possibilism” of Ockham involves an abstract logical possibility which is the measure of God’s potentia absoluta, and which in its turn is the measure of the actuality of God’s potentia ordinata.[33]

The practical import of Ockham’s having thus denuded logical possibility of what had been for Aquinas its ontological and theological content, is that it allowed him far more latitude to indulge in the kind of outrageous counterfactual speculation for which he is known, as when he suggests that God, for example, could have saved the human race through an ass, or have caused the moral law to require rather than forbid murder, or have eternally accepted an individual who was entirely lacking in the habit of grace, or even have made it meritorious for an individual to hate God, and so on. Behind each of these hypotheses, moreover, and intimately related to his rejection of divine exemplar causality, is Ockham’s further denial, again, contrary to Aquinas, of any necessary final causality within the created order: not having its originating, exemplary cause in the divine being or essence, it follows for Ockham that neither does creation necessarily have its destinating, final cause in the divine being or essence either.[34]

We conclude with an effort to take stock of a series of ironies that seem to emerge from Ockham’s revolutionary reworking of the traditional view of God’s ideas and power. As we saw in our preceding discussion of Aquinas, if the divine ideas may be seen as somehow fragmenting the divine essence, by identifying God’s essence with his ideas of creatures as imitable of that essence, Aquinas at least would seem to preserve a sense of the unity or identity between God’s essence and his power, with the result that what God can do is nothing other than what God is. The paradox to which Ockham’s position seems to commit him, by contrast, is that by denying the identity of the divine ideas with the divine essence precisely in the interest of divine simplicity, Ockham effectively reintroduces an arguably even more problematic multiplicity into the divine being, namely a duality of divine power and divine essence. As we found Ockham distinguishing matters earlier, “the created things existed from eternity in the potentiality of God but not in His nature…” Yet whereas Aquinas’s multiplicity of divine ideas had the virtue of being moderated by, and, over the course of his career, even being increasingly assimilated into, a principle of divine multiplicity which even Ockham recognized, namely the multiplicity of divine persons, Ockham by contrast offers no such Trinitarian reconciliation between his dualism of divine power and essence.[35]

A related irony, and apropos my earlier discussion of St. Thomas on the divine ideas, concerns the account of divine and human making—whether it is merely a knowing that leads to making or a knowing which occurs through the making—implied in Ockham’s philosophical theology. On the one hand, it might seem that in holding the divine ideas by which God creates to be themselves created entities, along with his general emphasis of the role of divine will in the act of creation over the divine intellect, Ockham privileges a more purely productive account of creation over the comparatively speculative and therefore allegedly “technological” account given by Aquinas. However, as we saw, although God’s ideas for Aquinas are uncreated and identical with his essence, there is a sort of creative or at least generative analog in the way God knows or rather “devises” his own ideas through the Father’s filiation of the Son. For Ockham, by contrast, while the ideas by which God creates are said to be themselves created, on the other hand they are simply “there” in the brute factuality of a pure but now empty logical possibility, a possibility which things have from themselves and not from God and which thus are able to function as an external limit or measure of God’s power. (Here we have yet another profound irony inherent in Ockham’s system, which is that it turns out to be the theologian of divine power himself who has arguably gone the furthest in subordinating divine power to an external principle.) Thus, when God creates for Ockham, he looks to ideas which he has supposedly created but the possibility of whose content has in fact already been predetermined for him, and which he is consequently obliged to take in passively as an extrinsic measure of his own infinite power. The result, accordingly, is the same back-door, “contorted form of necessitarianism” which Cunningham finds in the voluntarism of Duns Scotus: “The aprioricity generated by a conception of the possible as not anchored in the essence of God will perforce insist on the necessity of that which is thought.”[36] To put it differently still, in his effort to free the Christian God from the Platonic fetters by which the traditional doctrine of divine ideas was seen to have constrained him, Ockham after a fashion initiates an even more thoroughgoing, even if more complex, Platonic necessitarianism, exemplarism, and emanationism, inasmuch as God is now reconceived as creating the world according to eternal ideas which he also created but whose possibility at once was found to lie outside of himself and yet which possibility he could not help but know.[37] In this respect Ockham would seem to steer the doctrine of creation, and thus any account of human making that might be based upon it, back towards the “craft” or “technological” paradigm of divine making represented in Plato’s Timaeus. For Ockham, after all, it is not by a dynamic, generative, Trinitarian self-knowledge by which God knows his ideas, but as he stresses in one place, it is by a comparatively static, speculative “foreknowledge [by] which the one knowing can rationally produce… without the foreknowledge of which… he cannot rationally produce.”[38] In Ockham, in summary, creation ceases to be the divine art and self-expression and ground for a true human knowing-through-making, as it had been for Aquinas, and becomes a banal, technological foreknowing-then-making.

[1] For a recent study on the theological origins of modernity in changing views on divine freedom and power in the late medieval period, see Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity.

[2] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power, 25. In addition to Courtenay’s fine study on the history of the scholastic distinction of powers, see also Moonan, Divine Power: The Medieval Power Distinction up to its Adoption by Albert, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. For an introduction to the history of the distinction from the medieval to the early modern period, see Oakley, Omnipotence and Promise: The Legacy of the Scholastic Distinction of Powers.

[3] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 74. According to Courtenay, Ockham held to the traditional interpretation of God’s potentia absoluta as a “non-operationalized” or non-actualized but hypothetical power only, over against Scotus, Scotus’s disciples, and even some of Ockham’s own followers, according to whom God’s potentia absoluta included not only all the ways in which God can act, but also includes God’s absolutist, supernatural power according to which he sometimes does act, as in the case of miracles. Ibid., 90, 119-23. Corroborating Courtenay’s interpretation of Ockham as a traditionalist where the question of God’s potentia absoluta is concerned is a passage from Ockham’s Summa Logicae (3.4.6) cited by Marilyn McCord Adams in which he differentiates the erroneous from the proper sense of absolute power: “Again, the proposition ‘God, by His absolute power, can accept someone without grace, but not by His ordered power’ is multiplex. One sense is that God, by one power that is absolute and not ordered can accept someone without grace and by another power that is ordered and not absolute cannot accept it—as if there were two powers in God, by one of which He could [do] this and not by the other. And this sense is false. Otherwise, it can be taken improperly for the expression ‘God can accept someone without grace inhering in [him], since this does not include a contradiction, and nevertheless He ordained that this will never be done’. And this sense is true.” William of Ockham, cited in Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1199. Yet as Conor Cunningham observes, “[t]he exact nature of Ockham’s idea of divine Omnipotence is controversial. People such as Courtenay argue that it was a traditional version, in that it did not, in articulating the dichotomy of potentia ordinate/potentia absoluta, employ the latter as a form of action. But it appears that, for Ockham, this capacity is itself active, as everything in the Ockhamian world comes under its constant activity. In this sense potentia absoluta is an axiomatic active capacity.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 38n119. Supporting Cunningham’s claim is a passage from Ockham’s Quodlibetal Questions in which Ockham draws an analogy between God’s absolute power and the power exercized by the pope, and in much the same, absolutist terms that medieval canonists began to use in their own operationalized understanding of potentia absoluta. As Ockham writes there: “In the same way, there are some things that the Pope is unable to do in accordance with the laws established by him, and yet he is able to do those things absolutely.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.1, trans. Freddoso.

[4] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 120.

[5] Ibid., 88.

[6] Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, 30-56.

[7] Oakley, Omnipotence and Promise, 13.

[8] “Et quia potentia intelligitur ut exequens, voluntas autem ut imperans, et intellectus et sapientia ut dirigens, quod attribuitur potentiae secundum se consideratae, dicitur Deus posse secundum potentiam absolutam. Et huius modi est omne illud in quo potest salvari ratio entis, ut supra dictum est. Quod autem attribuitur potentiae divinae secundum quod exequitur imperium voluntatis iustae, hoc dicitur Deus posse facere de potentia ordinata. Secundum hoc ergo, dicendum est quod Deus potest alia facere, de potentia absoluta, quam quae praescivit et praeordinavit se facturum…”

[9] “Nihil autem opponitur rationi entis, nisi non ens. Hoc igitur repugnant rationi possibilis absoluti, quod subditur divinae omnipotentiae, quod implicat in se esse et non esse simul. Hoc enim omnipotentiae non subditur, non propter defectum divinae potentiae; set quia non potest habere rationem factibilis neque possibilis. Quaecumque igitur contradictionem non implicant, sub illis possibilibus continentur, respectu quorum dicitur Deus omnipotens. Ea vero quae contradictionem implicant sub divina omnipotentia non continentur: quia non possunt habere possibilium rationem.”

[10] “Unde quidquid potest habere rationem entis, continetur sub possibilibus absolutis, respectu quorum Deus dicitur omnipotens.”

[11] “Esse autem divinum super quod ratio divinae potentiae fundatur, est esse infinitum, non limitatum ad aliquod genus entis, sed praehabens in se totius esse perfectionem.”

[12] Or as Wippel has put it, “the possibility in question is not merely linguistic, nor merely logical, but ontological. Like the principle of noncontradiction itself, for Thomas possibility in its most fundamental sense is grounded in being, in this case in the divine being.” Wippel, “The Reality of Non-existing Possibles,” 168.

[13] In order for a thing to be actual rather than merely possible, of course, God must not only know it as possible but must also will that it should become actual, and the divine freedom to create other worlds consists in the fact that what God knows as possible—because imitable of himself—infinitely outpaces what he wills to be actual in finite creation. As Étienne Gilson aptly puts it, “God knows essences, but he says existences, and He does not say all that He knows.” Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 177.

[14] Wippel, “The Reality of Non-Existing Possibles,” 168. (For a critique of Wippel’s identification of the possibles with the divine ideas, however, see Ross, “Aquinas’s Exemplarism; Aquinas’s Voluntarism.”)

[15] “Non enim potest facere aliquid Deus, quod non sit conveniens sapientiae et bonitati ipsius… Similiter etiam quidquid in rebus creatis facit, secundum convenientem ordinem et proportionem facit; in quo consistit ratio iustitiae. Et sic oportet in omni opera Dei esse iustitiam.”

[16] Far from such absolute conditions imposing an undue constraint upon divine power, for Thomas the situation is quite the reverse, as when he argues from the premise of divine wisdom to the conclusion of divine omnipotence. Thomas thus concludes his fifth article on divine power, “Whether God can do what he does not?” with the following, telling inference: “And so the divine wisdom is not so restricted to any particular order that no other course of events could happen. Therefore we must simply say that God can do other things than those He has done” (ST 1.25.5). Not only does wisdom mark all of God’s actual deeds, but because what God actually does do cannot possibly exhaust his wisdom, this infinite surplus of wisdom guarantees that God can always do more, infinitely more, than what he does do. For Thomas, the divine wisdom, characterized in terms of divine action that is always “according to a fitting order and proportion,” not only does not infringe upon divine power, but is in fact what positively guarantees that power.

[17] “[P]ulchrum et bonum in subiecto quidem sunt idem, quia super eandem rem fundantur, scilicet super formam: et propter hoc, bonum laudatur ut pulchrum. Sed ratione differunt. Nam bonum proprie respicit appetitum: est enim bonum quod omnia appetunt. Et ideo habet rationem finis: nam appetitus est quasi quidam motus ad rem. Pulchrum autem respicit vim cognoscitivam: pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent. Unde pulchrum in debita proportione consistit: quia sensus delectatur in rebus debite proportionatis, sicut in sibi similibus…”

[18] On Thomas’s doctrine of the transcendental, including an argument for the non-transcendental status of beauty, see Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas.

[19] “Sed quando intellectus est regula vel mensura rerum, veritas consistit in hoc, quod res adaequantur intellectui: sicut dicitur artifex facere verum opus, quando concordat arti. Sicut autem se habent artificiata ad artem, ita se habent opera iusta ad legem cui concordant. Iustitia igitur Dei, quae constituit ordinem in rebus conformem rationi sapientiae suae, quae est lex eius, convenienter veritas nominator. Et sic etiam dicitur in nobis veritas iustitiae.”

[20] John Milbank, for example, writes: “for Aquinas logical possibility is only a faint version of real substantive actuality. It is designed to ‘intend’ this actuality, and guaranteed only by this actuality.” Milbank, “Truth and Vision,” 45.

[21] Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 208.

[22] On the development of the doctrine of divine ideas and possibility between Aquinas and Ockham, in which history Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus are the most important figures, see Wippel, “The Reality of Non-existing Possibles”; Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1037-43, 1068-76; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology, 13-17.

[23] On Ockham’s doctrine of divine ideas and omnipotence, see Pegis, “Concerning William of Ockham”; Wolter, “Ockham and the Textbooks: On the Origin of Possibility”; Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1033-83; Klocker, William of Ockham and the Divine Freedom, 77-89; Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality”; Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of its First Principles, 205-65, 295-337; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 17-26.

[24] Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 200. The following quotations from Ockham’s Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5 are taken from Stephen Chak Tornay’s translation of the passage in Tornay, Ockham: Studies and Selections, 137-64. The Latin text is from Ockham’s Scriptum in Librum Primum Sententiarum Ordinatio, Distinctiones XIX-XLVIII, vol. 4 in his Opera Philosophica et Theologica: Opera Theologica.

[25] “[U]t ipsa essentia est ratio et forma exemplaris eorum, et ut forma et causa et principium formale exemplatorum… idea nihil aliud est de ratione sua formali quam respectus imitabilitatis ex consideratione intellectus in ipsa divina essentia.”

[26] “[I]sta descriptio non convenit ipsi divinae essentiae, nec alicui respectui rationis, sed ipsimet creaturae.” Ockham’s use of Augustine throughout this passage is as ingenious as it is arguably ingenuous: it as at any rate unarguably selective. For example, after quoting Augustine’s statement, “Where shall we think these grounds are but in the very mind of the Creator, for He does not look to anything existing outside of Himself to bring about the things that He created” (Eighty-three Different Questions q. 43), Ockham piously observes: “From this authority it is manifest that the ideas are known by the divine mind… [Augustine’s] authority manifestly intends to intimate that God looks at the ideas in order to create, that is, bring things into existence according to those ideas.” In other words, Ockham takes Augustine’s statement which expressly locates the exemplars of creation within the mind of God and, contrary to Ockham’s own position, as we shall see, expressly denies these exemplars any existence outside the mind of God, and interprets it instead to be a mere affirmation that when God creates, he creates through divine ideas, irrespective of where those ideas are to be found.

[27] “[I]psa creatura est idea… Ergo ipsam creaturam producibilem vere aspicit et ipsam aspiciendo potest eam producere.”

[28] On the infinitude of God’s ideas Ockham writes, “it follows that God has an infinite number of ideas, as there are infinitely many things which can be produced by Him,” and on the eternality of the ideas he says that “the ideas are eternal in the divine mind; that is, they are eternally and unchangeably understood by [God].”

[29] “Unde dicunt aliqui quod creaturae fuerunt ab aeterno in Dei potentia, et non erant in sui natura. Et dicunt quod erant et non erant.”

[30] On the law of non-contradiction as a limit on divine power, Ockham writes that, in contrast to his ordained power, God’s absolute power “is taken as ‘power to do anything such that its being done does not involve a contradiction’, regardless of whether or not God has ordained that he will do it.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.1, trans. Freddoso.

[31] Wolter, “Ockham and the Textbooks,” 262. Armand Maurer makes this same point when he writes that, on Ockham’s view, “[w]e should not say that possible being belongs to a creature, but that the creature is possible, not because of anything pertaining to it, but because it can exist in the real world… ‘to be possible’ does not belong to a creature from God, but from itself.” Maurer, The Philosophy of Ockham in Light of its Principles, 254.

[32] “Hence, from eternity God saw all the things that were able to be created, and yet at that time they were nothing.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.6, trans. Freddoso. On Ockham’s curious doctrine that the possibles, are, in themselves, nothing, see Adams, William Ockham, 1059-1061; Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham, 219-28; Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 203; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 19-20.

[33] As Cunningham writes, for Ockham “[t]he possible is no longer defined by the actual, but is now more defined than the actual. This is the ascendancy of the law of non-contradiction.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 24.

[34] As Ramos points out, because for Ockham “it cannot be proved that God knows all effects and their operations, and that he has in his wisdom ordered them to an end,… [i]n the non-rational universe Ockham explains order simply by referring to the intrinsic determinism of nature, which does not point to anything outside of itself… We have then in Ockham the disappearance of the idea of natural inclination, of the Aristotelian doctrine which is taken by St. Thomas of the tendency of nature toward the good; this tendency is for Ockham a faith proposition.” Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 209.

[35] Thus, Colin E. Gunton, while praising Ockham for allegedly being “far more interested than Aquinas in the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the distinctive conception of contingency it generates, one very much derived from a stress on the free willing of the creator,” is obliged to fault Ockham for his “entirely non-trinitarian treatment of creation, perhaps best exemplified in the fact that he can refer even to the opening verses of the Gospel of John without noting the part played in its conception of creation by the mediation of the Word. The danger is a monism of a particular God conceived in simple juxtaposition to a particular world, again without christological mediation.” Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, 124. On the inadequacy of Gunton’s criticism of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation for being insufficiently Trinitarian, see the short essay on Aquinas’s doctrine of the Trinity.

[36] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 23. Adams suggests that Ockham’s later rejection of his objective-existence theory of concepts in favor of his mental-act theory would have led him to reject the thesis that, because “possibles are necessarily possible, it would follow that possibles have this ‘occult’ status eternally and necessarily and independently of both the divine will and the divine intellect. Confronted with this difficulty, Ockham would have probably opted for a Soft-Actualism that reduced unactualized possibles to the really existent divine act of thinking of them.” Adams, William Ockham, 1060-1. Adams, however, argues that such a solution is ultimately unsuccessful as it “fails to show how God’s single act of thought could be at once an act of thinking of every actual and possible creature distinctly, as well as of Himself,” as Ockham’s critique of earlier accounts of the divine simplicity would seem to require.

[37] It is interesting to note here that Ockham himself appeals directly to Plato to support his view that the ideas by which God creates are something he has to “look” to, are therefore something other than God’s own being, and thus, as Ockham further infers (over against Plato), are something “created”: “The intention of Plato, then, was not to say that the divine essence is the idea, but that there are certain other things known by God which are exemplars and to which God looks in producing. But what else among all the things known could the theologian accept for the idea more conveniently than the created thing itself.” Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5. As Anton Pegis aptly puts it, “Ockhamism is fundamentally Platonism minus the Ideas.” Pegis, “Concerning William of Ockham,” 479. Cunningham, however, suggests that this “absence” of Plato’s ideas in Ockham became “more determinate than any Platonic idea ever did.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 20. On a related but slightly different note is the natural alliance some scholars, including Étienne Gilson, have suggested to exist “between Ockhamist philosophy, which denied direct rational knowledge of God, and Neoplatonic mysticism, popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which sought God in transrational and even arrational experience.” Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, 15. In a related fashion, Erwin Panofsky has observed a certain convergence of late medieval Neoplatonic mysticism and nominalism, notably in their separation of faith and reason, “in the Late Gothic hall church. Its barnlike shell encloses an often wildly pictorial and always apparently boundless interior and thus creates a space determinate and impenetrable from without but indeterminate and penetrable from within.” Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, 43.

[38] Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5.


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