Creation as divine idleness, sanity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 23

Even when viewed as a finite, superfluous, and in that sense “inferior” reduplication of the divine being, the entirely voluntary, unnecessary, and gratuitous character of creation—in contrast, as we saw in the last chapter, to the impersonal necessity of Neoplatonic emanation of reality from the One—again has the tendency of rendering creation more comic than tragic. In Summa Theologiae 1.19.2, for example, Thomas reasons from the benevolent nature of voluntary agents in general to the conclusion that it belongs especially to God to will the existence of “things apart from himself” (alia a se), which serve no other purpose than to give him something to which he might communicate his own inherent goodness. It is not for his own sake, in other words, that God wills the existence of things other than himself, but for their sake, since God is already perfect and stands to gain nothing from his creative efforts. The result is a profound irony at the heart of Thomas’s account of creation, and one that at least one of his more rationalist commentators has sought to avoid, and yet without which creation loses its essential quality of playfulness and gratuitous excess: God creates, in short, to benefit that which would otherwise not even exist unless he first created it. As Thomas charmingly puts it in one passage, God “alone is the most perfectly free giver, because He does not act for His own profit…” (Et ideo ipse solus est maxime liberalis: quia non agit propter suam utiltatem…–ST 1.44.4). Chesterton captures well the basic difference between the kind of tragic rationalism and causalism of Neoplatonic emanationism reviewed earlier and the comic freedom of Christian creationism in the contrast he draws in Orthodoxy between the madman and the sane man: “The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.” The doctrine of creation, in short, represents a kind of metaphysical strength and health, for it teaches a God who creates and loves that which is “useless” or needless to himself. For Thomas, creation is not a metaphysical decadence: it is a divine extravagance.

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