Thomas’s “Comic” Metaphysics

Metaphysics of the Music, part 22

Related to Thomas’s existentialism is his concomitant doctrine of metaphysical realism, the stress Thomas lays on the irreducibly real, mind-independent, yet for that reason mind-obtruding and seducing character of things. I’ve posted before on Thomas’s and Tolkien’s shared doctrine of “theological truth,” captured in Tolkien’s emphatic claim that things “ARE, they would exist even if we did not” (Letters 399). What I particularly want to draw attention to here is the positive attitude towards the alterity or “otherness” of things entailed in Thomas’s doctrine. On the one hand, it is quite true for Thomas that “natural things… have being absolutely in the divine mind more truly than in themselves, because in that mind they have an uncreated being, but in themselves a created being” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[1] In other words, things are more real in the divine mind than they are in their own created being. However, far from this implying a Neoplatonic, metaphysically tragic degradation of things, on the contrary, it is precisely the inferiority of created being in comparison to their divine origin that renders the act of creation for Thomas not metaphysically tragic, but comic. Even so, immediately following his above statement that, “absolutely” speaking, things more truly exist in the divine mind than in themselves, Thomas goes on to say that, nevertheless, “to be this particular being, a man, or a horse, for example, is realized more truly in its own nature than in the divine mind, because it belongs to the truth of man to be material, which, as existing in the divine mind, he is not.”[2] As Thomas further explains in a passage that will have an important application to Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur, “[e]ven so a house has nobler being in the architect’s mind than in matter; yet a material house is called a house more truly than the one which exists in the mind, since the former is a house in act, the latter only in potency” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[3] Things, in short, have more truth, more being, more perfection or goodness, and therefore more actuality in God than they do in themselves. The point, however, is that in the divine mind, “things” enjoy this super-eminent truth, being, perfection, and actuality not as themselves, that is, not as created beings, but as certain aspects of God’s own, uncreated being. To have any kind of reality as themselves, of course, things must be given their own being as individual things, the kind of being, in other words, that they do not have in the divine mind, a point Thomas finds especially illustrated in the case of material beings. And if this is true of the divine mind, how much more must it be true with respect to finite human minds? Thus Thomas, writing of the purely “logical existence” that mathematical entities have in the mind and yet upon which, as we saw, music is based, says that they clearly “do not subsist as realities” otherwise “they would be in some sort good if they subsisted” (ST1.5.3 ad 4), and that an individual man, because he includes individual matter, therefore “has something in it” which the intelligible essence of man alone does not (ST1.3.3).[5] Thomas’s positive evaluation of matter as a created, intelligible, and objectifying force, combined with the role he reserves for the body in the sensual perception of beauty, mean that, as Michael Sweeney has put it in a passage in keeping with our theme, “[i]nstead of rendering philosophy tragic, the inescapable corporeality of human life makes philosophy comic because matter is no longer an irrational given contrary to intelligibility but the created principle to which all human thought must return.”[6]

[1] “Sed quia de ratione rerum naturalium est materia, dicendum quod res naturales verius esse habent simpliciter in mente divina habent esse increatum, in seipsis autem esse creatum.” See also De veritate 6.4.

[2] “Sed esse hoc, utpote homo vel equus, verius habent in propria natura quam in mente divina: quia ad veritatem hominis pertinet esse materiale, quod non habent in mente divina.”

[3] “Sicut domus nobilius esse habet in mente artificis, quam in materia: sed tamen verius dicitur domus quae est in materia, quam quae est in mente, quia haec est domus in actu, illa autem domus in potentia.”

[5] “[U]nde id quod est homo, habet in se aliquid quod non habet humanitas.”

[6] Sweeney, “Stat rosa pristine margine: Umberto Eco on the Role of the Margin in Medieval Hermeneutics and Thomas Aquinas as a Comic Philosopher,” 266.


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