Nothingness as Post-Existence

A couple of weeks ago I posted on how God’s act of creation is so radical, so basic, so ultimate, that more than merely bringing existence into being from nothing, it is actually responsible for bringing into being for the the very first time the very opposition between being and non-being itself, and in that sense might be said to involve the very invention of “nothing.” Before God created, there was no “thing,” not even “nothing.” Not only is creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. 

Rereading his On the Fall of the Devil, I find that Anselm says much the same thing. In response to the Student’s query as to how the word nothing can have any signification if what it signifies is indeed nothing, the Teacher replies:

It is agreed that as far as its signification goes, the word ‘nothing’ is in no way different from ‘not-something.’ And nothing is more obvious than this: ‘not-something’ by its signification requires that every thing, whatsoever, and anything that is something, is to be excluded from the understanding, and that no thing at all or what is in any way something is to be included in the understanding. But since there is no way to signify the exclusion of something except by signifying the very thing whose exclusion is signified–for no one understand what ‘not-human’ signifies except by understanding what a human is–the expression ‘not-something’ must signify something precisely by eliminating that which is something. On the other hand, by excluding everything that is something, it signifies no essence that it requires to be included in the hearer’s understanding. Therefore, the expression ‘not-something’ does not signify any thing or that which is something. (De casu diaboli 11, Williams trans.)

Nothingness, therefore, is a post-existence, and hence post-creational, phenomenon. Before God creates, there is not God and nothing: there is only God. Nothingness is con-created (and hence con-signified, as Anselm’s Teacher observes) along with the somethingness that is creation, which means that God invents nothing in and with what he creates. As Conor Cunningham puts it in the passage I cited in the previous post, the difference between being and non-being is preceded by the intra-Trinitarian differences that constitute the Godhead. Put differently, God’s act of creation is so powerful that it brings into being the possibility of its own opposite, nothing. Anselm’s near contemporary Peter Damian says in his letter On Divine Omnipotence that “God has not yet learned to make nothing.” What he means is that God doesn’t make things that don’t in fact exist, something Anselm agrees with. But there is a another sense in which nothing is exactly what God makes, by virtue of making something. In terms of our modal theism, finally, we see that it is not an empty nothing that is the prior possibility of there then being an actual something (possibilism), but it is God’s creation of an actual something that makes nothing possible.

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