With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Analogia...in a nutshell

The question of the analogia entis and analogical language in general is often posed in terms of how God could possibly be thought of as "being" (or "good" or "beautiful," or "wise," etc.). Really that's only part of the question. The real mind-blowing issue that metaphysics raises is: how can WE adequately be thought of as "being?"

"To be" is notionally pretty simple. But when we speak of the being of creatures, we describe things that do not exist by definition. That is, they do not exist simplicter; nowhere in the description of what they are will you find "exists." We are talking about things ontologically composite: because things come to be and pass away, and the world could have kept on going without them existing, what they are is something conceptually (and really) separate from that they are. "Being" said of creatures thus never means "simply to be," because coming to be and passing away is not what we really mean by "being." We always point to a limited instantiation. There is always a qualification.

But how does being come to have this limited sense? Why not imagine something that just plain IS? That fully makes-real what we mean by "to be?" In fact, we can't avoid addressing such a "thing." Because acknowledging that what the things around us are is different from the fact that they are, we implicitly acknowledge that they are created: they are caused to be. They must receive their existence from something outside of themselves (their essence). And after all of the connecting-of-the-dots that St. Thomas does in the first 11 questions of the Prima Pars, we conclude among other things that in order to be the kind of thing that causes the being of all things, this Cause cannot itself be ontologically composite. It cannot receive its existence from something else, for then we would have to look for something else that already was before. In other words, the way that this thing exists is simple.

That would be what all call God (if you hadn't guessed). The fact that He is the First Cause in the order of existence entails that He simply IS. His "whatness" and His "thatness" are identical, and He doesn't "have" Being, Goodness, Wisdom, etc. He just plain IS His Being, Goodness, Wisdom, etc.! God IS in the fullest sense of the word, he fills it out. As it turns out, He is the only "thing" worthy enough to be called being. When we say "He is," we can mean it; and when we say that other things "are," we are always speaking with a kind of inherent blasphemy.

So the question of religious language can be flipped around: acknowledging all this, we are forced to admit that God monopolizes the concept of "being;" so while we may have a word in itself completely adequate to God, we have seemingly evacuated language of the ability to talk about the things around us. Instead of negative theology, we are seemingly forced into a kind of "negative anthropology" (possibly even a "negative physics," and a "negative biology," etc.). How could any human discourse that claims "humans ARE tall/short/bipedal/good-looking/intelligent" or "trees ARE leafy/plants/tall/rooty/" really say anything meaningful if things actually "aren't?"

If we are to talk about our "being," then we do so only with an understanding of how inadequate our use of it is. Our composite nature means two things: 1) we receive our being as a gift, we are caused to exist by something outside of ourselves which simply IS; and 2) we do not exist simply but only in a very qualified, limited sense. These two statements express the same fact in different ways. As caused to be by that which fully IS, we get a limited share in being. The traditional way to say this is that we participate in being. For God to cause something to exist is inherently to give it a limited share, a taste, of what it is for Him to be. To put it technically, efficient causality implies exemplary causality.

It may be more accurate to say that we "have" our existence, rather than that we exist. But the point remains that in actuality, we are more downgrading a divine tongue when we speak ontologically about common things than we are imposing a foreign speech onto something that has nothing to do with "being" when we speak about God.

The primary meaning of the word "Being" is thus cashed out in God. But composite beings don't exist on their own, they only "have being" due to God causing it in them. That means that language of "being" can only be attributed to us in virtue of the causal relationship. There is the famous example of "healthy." We speak to the focal meaning of the word "healthy" when we use it of people (or animals): Joe is healthy because his mind and body are in a certain order. But when we describe medicine as "healthy," or say that our urine is "healthy looking," we aren't speaking in the same sense. We can only attribute "healthy" to things like medicine and urine in virtue of some relationship they have to the primary meaning: medicine causes health in a man, and urine can in cases be a sign of it.

Composite being in its very structure stands to simple Being as effect to Cause. Thus we can only speak of ourselves and other natural things as "being" because they bear an ontological relation to God.

That is one way to go about describing analogy....in a nutshell.

Pax Christi,


  • At 1/20/2009 12:59 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    This is a very eloquent, accessible and straightforward articulation. It's not easy for full fledged academics, let alone us lowly grad students, to articulate such doctrines so lucidly, but you have done so!

    I could compliment you more, but now that you are at the Masters level, I'm sure you crave dialogue and critical responses more than flattery - :)

    I have only one very minor concern, and I write it knowing the context is a blog post, and that you were touching on one aspect of the Analogia entis "in a nutshell." Nevertheless, my concern relates to that very premise: can the analogia be expressed 'nut-shell-like' without risking a crucial reduction?

    Obviously to this you would say 'yes' since you did indeed present it concisely and insightfully 'in a nutshell'. In a sense, I too am in favor of making these difficult theological principles more accessible to one not familiar with the history or philosophy that is involved.

    However, that said, I am also aware of "the monsters of concision." And here is my question to you: how does your reading of the analogia, which at least appears to draw the whole of analogia into divine causality, avoid univocalizing analogy?

    While I know you are well aware of the dangers of univocal being when we move from the order of creatures to God, there is another danger: the move from God as the only true being to creatures in such a way that eliminates the integrity of creaturely being based upon the fact that divine being is the only true being.

    Now, of course, God's being is the cause of all other being. This is unquestionable. But there are a few things to bear in mind (and I'm sure you already have, so take these for what they are worth):

    First, God's being is uniquely his own insofar as his is the only being that is not limited, not finite, etc. In other words, the limitless nature of the divine is what establishes his being as his own (a point, I'm sure you know, that Thomas continually taught).

    So, divine being is itself, in some mysterious way, a unique integrity, absolutely different from all other beings.

    This means that we are speaking about a causal being whose being cannot in any way be categorized. Hence the Dionysian denial even of being when speaking of God. And because neither God nor being can be mediated as a category, it can only ever be approached dialectically. God's causing all being is in some way a "non-causing causality" since divine causality exceeds all categorical mediation of what we understand as 'cause'.

    Second, this means that even causality is analogous if God's being is beyond all categories. So while we can get glimpses of causality as a concept or category, we can never univocally define it.

    (This also hits on one of Kant's points about certain metaphysical phenomenon being beyond any of our rational categories. Causality is one such phenomenon since causality per se requires that we posit an extrasensory concept to account for the effect. As I understand him, this is not the primary difficulty. That one can infer a cause from an effect seems reasonable. The problem arises when an entire category arises from these inferences, namely the category of causality. The very nature of causality requires that there be no category higher than itself through which it is mediated since even categories must be caused. It is, therefore, an inferentially constructed concept. But I digress....)

    Anyway, if one stresses the absolute being of God and neglects the subsisting component of substance, then one risks ending up with the ontotheological problem diagnosed, not entirely without prejudice, by Heidegger. In other words, if all being as such is subsumed under divine being as dependent upon it, and if this dependency is interpreted via a univocal conceptualization of causality, then one has unhappily univocalized analogy.

    I don't think you did that; far from it. But I wonder how you see the direction of your thought pursuing this problem.

    Third, even creaturely being is somehow mysteriously subsisting. For Aquinas, anyway, a substance is defined, even philosophically, via negative language: a substance is that entity for which it belongs to exist NOT in another. The apophatic method allows one to think in terms of what Desmond calls "open wholes"; it allows a definition while avoiding the univocity that so easily fences definitions in.

    So substance is defined and understood by what it is not - namely, existing in another. This is the mysterious giving of God's self to his creatures. And this giving involves the divine difference. If we emphasize the absolute being of the divine, then we risk missing this crucial aspect of analogia, don't you think?

  • At 1/22/2009 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    How painful!

    Please check out these references which give a completely different Understanding of being-existence.






  • At 1/23/2009 9:03 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Anon -

    Appreciate your attempt to enter the conversation, but the "metaphysics" you advocate is little more than rhetoric.

    I have great respect for Eastern thought and find that when Westerners attempt to appropriate it, it is like trying to get drunk on non-alcoholic beer.
    What you offered is an odd melange of Eastern dishes, laden with loads of Kantian and Freudian spices which, when mixed inappropriately leads to incredible indigestion.

    Thanks all the same. The system you advance just can't satisfy the full human person the way that the tradition of Catholic thought can.

  • At 1/30/2009 2:39 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the wise words. I agree, of course, and I think I will try and do a quick post this weekend unpacking it a little more.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 10/16/2009 4:19 PM, Blogger Anders said…

    Hello! We both agree on the existence of a good Creator.

    Since you are a Christian I think that the website www.netzarim.co.il will be of interest to you. It contains logical and scientific research about Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth and what he taught.


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