Aquinas, Simplicity and the Convertibility of Being and Beauty

Critical Ruminations

By: Jay

Being a big fan of Eco, I like Eco’s critique of being. Not generic being, but the convertibility of being in Aquinas. I like being, too. In his The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Eco proposes that beauty cannot be convertible with being and that this is a defunct concept that fell the way of archaic ideas once Ockham’s nominalism showed up; this led to the idea that there is no magic chain binding the transcendentals in an object. And thus philosophy went introspective. And so Eco is an agnostic gnostic now.  I’ve always wondered why it didn’t occur to Eco that maybe Thomism isn’t the end all, be all of Christian theo-philosophy.

But Eco is right that strange problems arise when we say beauty is convertible with being and the good. For Thomas, beauty adds nothing substantial to the notion of being, but only conceptually, and is coextensive with it.  And they are only conceptually distinct. This article traverses land, sea and air analyzing the current scene as regards theology-as-aesthetic and it’s neat-o in that regard, but what no one really seems to mention is that it appears this whole idea is connected to Thomas’ idea that God’s essence is “beauty,” “true” and “good,” and that these predicates are also one in God, and only conceptually distinct.  Thomas says:

“Hence it is manifest that God alone has every kind of perfection by His own essence; therefore He Himself alone is good essentially.” -S.T. Ia Q. 6, Art. 3

“I answer that, As good has the nature of what is desirable, so truth is related to knowledge. Now everything, in as far as it has being, so far is it knowable. Wherefore it is said in De Anima iii that “the soul is in some manner all things,” through the senses and the intellect. And therefore, as good is convertible with being, so is the true. But as good adds to being the notion of desirable, so the true adds relation to the intellect.” -S.T. Ia Q. 16. Art 3

“I answer that, Although the good and the true are convertible with being, as to suppositum, yet they differ logically.” -S.T., Ia Q. 16. Art. 4

I needn’t go into the numerous places in Questions 3, 12 and 13 on divine simplicity and divine names where we are told that although the predications and names fall short, they do tell us something substantial of the divine essence. They tell us something substantial of the essence of God because all the operations/energies of God are His essence in strict identification. 

Thus, when Aquinas looks at being and it’s transcendentals, it makes sense that he would add beauty to the list of Aristotle’s transcendentals, while thinking that it adds nothing to being, yet is controvertible with it. It’s basically the same as with the divine ousia – God’s essence is beauty, true, good, wisdom, etc.  This naming, as has been shown, is based on the analogia entis – reasoning up from creaturely quasi-perfections to the perfections found in the divine essence. But for beauty to be a predicate of the divine essence, based on creaturely appropriation, it requires that we set it off from the ugly or less beautiful.  But the reason things are beautiful, in Thomism, is divine exemplarism.  In this scheme, all things are thus ultimately perfect, inasmuch as their archetype is in the divine essence as question 15 on the divine ideas argues.

So humans, in their experience, parcel out the beautiful from the ugly in creatures (which is only a logical distinction and does not exist in reality), reason up from that to the notion that there is a supremely simple substance that is “beauty” and “being” and this “God.”  But in God, all the archetypes are the supremely simple substance of God’s essence. Furthermore, all these things possess being and thus inasmuch as they possess being, they are beautiful. But this argument began with the idea necessity of distinguishing some things as not beautiful. “Beauty” is not a term that fits into the category of apophatic notions like “inifinity” which are necessarily defined by what they aren’t. Beauty, as this argument goes, begins with created entities.

And remember – the thing that makes things beautiful in Thomism, really, is the divine idea of them – the perfection – that subsists in the essence of God, and not the ding an sich.  To know that all things are in some sense beautiful requires the divine perspective to know truly in what sense certain things are more or less beautiful. It requires access to the divine exemplarism, which we certainly cannot attain in Thomism in this life, as such things are reserved for the beatific vision. Eco makes this criticism on page 203 and I’m expanding it and adding a few of my own. Therefore it looks like the beautiful is only convertible with being on the basis of a Thomistic analogia entis, which is based on flawed, monadic absolute divine simplicity, and is inherently flawed and any notion of creaturely predication will also be flawed, though Thomism doesn’t think it’s linguistic predication is grounded in a particular personalist theism – I think it falls under “natural theology,” right? What unnatural conclusions we must come to….

2 thoughts on “Aquinas, Simplicity and the Convertibility of Being and Beauty

  1. Question: In Thomism are the “Universals” (or what Plato called the Forms) considered co-eternal with the Godhead, like thoughts that have always been in “the head” of God or are they also created (albeit in a non-temporal sense)?

    Question 2: If they aren’t created, in what part of the Godhead are the supposed to eternally reside? I’m assuming the Logos (God the Son). I seem to recall some early Church fathers claiming this.

    Question number 3: Though you reject Thomas’ A.D.S, you still support his Realist position over Ockham’s Nominalism, right?

    Question 4: Is A.D.S a dogma of the Catholic Church or are there Eastern Catholics who don’t accept it. My knowledge of these issues is somewhat sparse, a few years ago I wrote a paper on Nominalist subtext in Eco’s “Name of the The Rose.” I seem to recall reading that even Ockham’s position was never officially condemned in his own lifetime. Given that many modern seminaries are populated by Hegelians, Cartesians, Marxists, Teilhardians, New Agers, Darwinists and Relativists, I assume the philosophical leash isn’t too tight.

    • 1. Yes. 2. We don’t know – no parts – just operations distinguished from essence. 3. Yes. 4. It’s debatable. Name of the Rose is good. And no, Ockaham is condemned…

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